Plane Finder Phone App Called An 'Aid To Terrorism,' Even If It's Just Using Public Data

from the look,-up-there-in-the-sky,-it's-a-clue dept

Slashdot points us to the news that security experts and the US Dept. of Homeland Security are apparently worried about an application called Plane Finder, which is available on the iPhone and Android phones. Among other things, it lets you point your phone at an airplane in the sky, and it will provide info on that plane, including the height and speed, as well as its destination, and a “likely course.” The fear, of course, is that terrorists could potentially use this to shoot down a plane.

Of course, in blaming this app, everyone seems to be missing the real target. This app is using Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcasts (ADS-B), which is transmitted by many aircraft these days, and can apparently be read with a $200 receiver. In other words, if terrorists wanted that data, they’d go out and get that $200 receiver. The “problem” (if there really is one) isn’t the Plane Finder app (which actually sounds kind of cool), but the fact that all that data is being made available publicly. Blaming the app sort of misses the point, because if the data is available so easily, you can bet those who wish to do harm with it, have already figured that out. In the meantime, the Plane Finder app itself doesn’t appear to actually have that many downloads. The report claims 2,000 sales on iTunes, and in the Android store, it looks like less than 500 have been purchased. Of course, now that it’s in the news…

Filed Under: , , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Plane Finder Phone App Called An 'Aid To Terrorism,' Even If It's Just Using Public Data”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Dark Helmet (profile) says:

It's a matter of personal connection...

“In other words, if terrorists wanted that data, they’d go out and get that $200 receiver.”

But that makes for a shitty headline. The point of newspapers isn’t to inform, it’s to sell papers. Look at the two (amplified) headlines below, and guess which one will resonate fear in people:

1. Using public data and a $200 dollar mystery device, terrorists might know where your plane is going….


2. A terrorist with an iPhone is going to blow up your plane! LOUD NOISES!!!!

The reason the iPhone is important to the story is because people have smart phones. It resonates. It connects. Mystery devices don’t matter because they don’t connect. People’s brains shut off when thinking about what they imagine is some hard to get, niche market mystery device thingy….

Kingster (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why wouldn’t it? Each airframe gets a unique 24-bit ADS-B identifier, much like an IMEI number or MAC address.

And also… Air Force One is the call sign given to *any* plane that the president is on… Not just the two 747s that most people think of. When he vacationed in Maine over the 4th of July, a Gulfstream carried the call sign.

So, knowing the ADS-B identifier doesn’t tell you who is on the plane. Just what plane it is.

@Robert – all aircraft in North American Air Space are supposed to be ADS-B Out equipped by 2020… But there is no other mandate that I can see out there.

pixelpusher220 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Yes I’m aware the call sign travels with the President himself.

Assuming one can read a signal from an at altitude aircraft while on the ground, someone standing even a mile away from Andrews AFB could read the signal when the President takes off and relay his possible destination.

The concept of planes broadcasting their routes to any who will listen just smacks of ‘non-secure’ design…sorta like the internet 😉

Kingster (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

ADS-B does not require intended destination to be transmitted (at least at this point). The capability may be there, but I don’t see reference to it. It does need heading, altitude, speed, aircraft callsign, aircraft type, and distance.

Anonymous Coward says:

Security Theater.

I emailed this one in to Bruce Schneier. This is ridiculous grandstanding. If terrorists want to range-find a plane as a target, they certainly don’t need an iPhone, and I’m pretty sure they’re not picky about which airplane it is for the most part.

This is just hand waving and gnashing of teeth for no real threat.

Berenerd (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

On the next hour of…24….boop…beep..boop….beep…boop…beeep* *EXPLOSION* Jack is running in in spandex and a pick axe with night vision goggles…he then throws the axe at the plane the same time the terrorist rocket is about to hit and deflects the rocket where it goes back and kills the terrorist…
I should be a writer…

Colin (profile) says:

Range of a Stinger missile

OK – according to Wikipedia (hey, I’m a bit lazy, ok?) a Stinger missile, which is presumably what one of these hypothetical terrorists would use to blow up said plane, has a range of between 3 and 5 miles, so….by the time your terrorist picks a spot close enough to a busy airport that planes are within the effective range of the missile, wouldn’t binoculars be just as effective?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Range of a Stinger missile

Better: the stinger is a heat seeker. Point it at the air and wait for a beep. Since aircraft routes are well known, you even know the approach direction, angle, speed and altitude. Just lock on and fire. It’s kinda like fishing.

And you save the money you would have spent on an iPhone. You get a bonus for staying under budget, and that might mean a promotion from martyr to junior terrorist (great health benefits: you don’t have to blow yourself up).

Ruin20 says:

Level of sophistication

Homeland security is right. The risk significantly increases as the level of complexity decreases. Just because the data can be gathered using a $200 device, it is easier for the terrorist if there is an app that replaces the training, acquisition, and effort required to gather that data.

The Time Square bombing failed not due to lack of availability of material or techdata for the manufacture of the bomb, but because the bomb making process was significantly more difficult to perform than the capability of the recruits the Taliban could acquire. We achieve this by two means, one discouraging recruitment and two increasing the level of complexity required to preform an attack. If TNT and det cord were widely available the attack wouldn’t have failed because Shahzad could have easily put together his IED.

Keeping the minimum threshold of competency required to preform an attack above the capabilities of the enemy is what provides security. It’s how the system works, the “capabilities gap” is what protects us.

Now do I think this is necessarily the largest part of the capabilities gap required to shoot down a plane? No. Do I think that it is part of it? Yes. Does the social benefit outweigh the public risk? Probibly. But that’s not what DHS is evaluating, its more of a congressional issue than one regulated to DHS.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Among other things, it lets you point your phone at an airplane in the sky, and it will provide info on that plane, including the height and speed, as well as its destination, and a “likely course.” The fear, of course, is that terrorists could potentially use this to shoot down a plane.”

Uhm…this is just me but, if I was (hypothetically) going to shoot down a plane, I would need, like, at least a five minute warning (to set up the gear, locate the target, etc) before I was even ready to aim and fire. Life isn’t Call of Duty. Shooting down a plane isn’t as easy as pointing the gun to the air and pressing the trigger and the missile will hit the aircraft no matter what I do.

So, if the aircraft must be “that close” for me to identify it, I probably wouldn’t even have enough time to identify my target and fire at it before it was out of range. That App is useless for terrorism.

The Infamous Joe (profile) says:

Late to the game.

Personally, I was unaware we have terrorists on US soil with ground to air missiles. Shouldn’t we be more worried, not that they can find a target, but that they might have the means to shoot it out of the sky? AFAIK, the terrorists on 9/11 knew where they planes were because they were on them. If we are worried that there is an app that will tell them where the plane they are on is while they are on it, then that functionality comes with every GPS enabled smart phone.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...