Saturday, December 19, 2015

Deal Is Close That Would Shield Some Data on Flights: Group fears new navigation technology would make it possible for aviation enthusiasts, news media to routinely track flights across the United States

An air traffic controller works in the tower at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, New Jersey in May. A new tracking system that is part of a broader air-traffic control revamp incorporating satellite technology, will become mandatory by the end of the decade.

The Wall Street Journal
Dec. 19, 2015 3:17 p.m. ET

Business aviation groups and federal officials are close to agreement on ways to maintain the privacy of certain aircraft movements, despite air-traffic control upgrades that otherwise would make such information public.

The preliminary consensus, according to people familiar with the matter, includes short-term steps resolving concerns by the National Business Aviation Association that new ground-based navigation technology would make it possible for aviation enthusiasts, news media and others to routinely track flights across the U.S.

Such position information now relies on radar data that can be blocked from public view at the specific request of operators—or at the behest of celebrities, executives and any passengers of business aircraft who don’t want details of their airborne travels revealed to outsiders. Selective blocking has been overseen by the government since the summer of 2013.

Reporters and busybodies already can track the location of certain private planes, but the information is largely historical. Unless new protections are put in place, however, NBAA contends that by the end of the decade almost any plane could be tracked in real time by anyone ingenious enough to know where to look.

The new tracking system, called ADS-B and part of a broader air-traffic control revamp incorporating satellite technology, will become mandatory by the end of the decade. It uses different signals and doesn’t permit selective blocking of data by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The technology reports aircraft positions in a manner that is relatively easy for the general public to access, along with commercial websites dedicated to monitoring airspace activity. An off-the-shelf receiver, for example, can monitor the signals.

As a result, NBAA for months has prodded the FAA to devise a solution that would continue keeping selective position data confidential. The goal is to prevent digital eavesdropping by the public on aircraft positions, speeds and flight tracks.

Ed Bolen, the president of NBAA, has argued that unrestricted public access to flight data could endanger some passengers. “People should not have to surrender their security just because they board an airplane,” he has said.

The tentative short-term solution, according to people familiar with the details, eliminates a major source of controversy between federal regulators and the business-jet community. It envisions changing aircraft-specific identifying codes perhaps daily or weekly. That would prevent outsiders from connecting specific ADS-B transmissions with particular aircraft.

Collaborative work to fine-tune a solution is continuing, according to an NBAA spokesman. “We continue to meet” with FAA officials, he said, “and they continue to ask us for information.”

Jens Hennig, vice president of operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association and another person familiar with the discussions, said FAA officials recently presented a proposed solution to an air-traffic control advisory group. “The near-term solution seems to achieve industry’s goal,” he said in an interview. Issues that still must be resolved, he added, include the FAA’s costs for necessary software revisions.

But for the longer term, government and industry experts are looking at certain kinds of encryption to shield the locations and registration numbers of business or private aircraft. Earlier this week, a senior FAA official reiterated the agency’s request to Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, an industry standard-setting organization, to assess the possibility of using encryption.

The FAA wants to know “what’s the feasibility of doing encryption” and “what’s the practicality of doing it,” Richard Jennings, the agency’s main representative to RTCA, said at a meeting this week.

Original article can be found here:

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