Sunday, April 21, 2024

College Student Takes on Taylor Swift in Legal Battle Over Private Jet Tracking

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A legal battle is brewing between Taylor Swift and a college student who has made a hobby of tracking the pop star’s private jet flights.

Jack Sweeney, a 21-year-old student at the University of Central Florida, has gained notoriety in recent years for his social media accounts that tracked the movements of private jets belonging to celebrities, billionaires and even sanctioned Russian oligarchs.

In late December, Sweeney received a cease and desist letter from Katie Wright Morrone, a lawyer representing Swift, accusing him of engaging in “stalking and harassing behavior” by publicly sharing information about Swift’s flights and location.

“While this may be a game to you, or an avenue that you hope will earn you wealth or fame, it is a life-or-death matter for Ms. Swift,” Morrone wrote. The letter demanded that Sweeney immediately stop posting details about Swift’s whereabouts and remove related content from his accounts.

But Sweeney is not backing down. In a response sent last month and shared publicly on social media on Monday, Sweeney’s lawyer James Slater asserted that his client had done nothing unlawful.

Put simply, there is nothing unlawful about GRNDCTRL’s use of publicly accessible information to track private jets, including those used by public figures like Taylor Swift,” Slater wrote, referring to the company Sweeney operates.

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Sweeney first gained attention in 2020 for an account called @ElonJet that monitored the flights of Elon Musk’s private jet. Musk offered Sweeney $5,000 to shut down the account, but Sweeney refused. Twitter later banned the account for violating its policies on sharing personal information.

Following the success of @ElonJet, Sweeney created similar accounts tracking the jets of other famous figures, including Russian oligarchs and Swift. He has argued the information can shed light on excessive greenhouse gas emissions from celebrity and billionaire air travel.

“Her fans, who have grown the TaylorSwiftJets accounts and subreddit, are the ones truly interested,” Sweeney said in a statement earlier this month. “Therefore, one should reasonably expect that their jet will be tracked, whether or not I’m the one doing it, as it is public information after all.”

Morrone and Swift’s legal team have strongly pushed back on this characterization, arguing that making details of the singer’s travels easily accessible online poses serious safety risks and enables stalking.

“Ms. Swift has dealt with stalkers and other individuals who wish her harm since she was a teenager,” Morrone wrote. “This reality has forced her to live her life in a constant state of fear for her personal safety.”

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The letters from Morrone reference a California law on stalking and credible threats. In his response, Slater rejected the argument that Sweeney posed a credible threat under that law.

“Our clients have never made any threats against Ms. Swift and your letter does not suggest they have done so,” Slater wrote. “Further, your letter’s tone of alarm is unfounded. GRNDCTRL’s website only provides the location of private jets using publicly available information. That information poses no threat to Ms. Swift’s safety.”

So how exactly is Sweeney obtaining data on celebrity flights? The answer involves piecing together information from various public sources.

Flight-tracking data comes in part from registration information made available by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA requires that aircraft use an Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system, which transmits real-time position and altitude data that is picked up by ground receivers.

Commercial sites like FlightAware use this data to show the real-time location of commercial flights. But the same public data can also be used to track private jets, allowing Sweeney’s accounts to follow the movement of celebrity aircraft across the world.

In an interview with ABC News, Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington, said Sweeney’s actions likely don’t violate any civil or criminal laws.

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“Is it the right thing to do? I think that’s a matter of public opinion. It’s a matter of morality,” said Calo. “But I don’t see how it violates any civil or criminal law.”

Calo explained that the FAA makes flight data public for two main reasons: to track safety and performance in case of emergencies, and for accountability and transparency.

Sweeney says he has switched to posting Swift’s flight details on a 24-hour delay rather than in real-time. But that hasn’t satisfied Swift’s legal team, who issued a follow-up letter on January 12 continuing to demand Sweeney stop tracking the singer’s jet.

In sharing the correspondence on social media this week, Sweeney referenced Swift’s 2017 song “Look What You Made Me Do,” hinting at an unfolding public drama with the pop star.

It remains to be seen whether Swift will take further legal action against Sweeney. But the college student has made clear through his lawyer that he plans to continue defending his right to share publicly available flight data.

“GRNDCTRL does not think Ms. Swift will pursue meritless legal action,” Sweeney’s lawyer wrote in his response to the cease and desist. “But if she does, GRNDCTRL will not buckle to her threat.”

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Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee
Mezhar Alee is a prolific author who provides commentary and analysis on business, finance, politics, sports, and current events on his website Opportuneist. With over a decade of experience in journalism and blogging, Mezhar aims to deliver well-researched insights and thought-provoking perspectives on important local and global issues in society.

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