College Student Jack Sweeney on His Efforts to Track Taylor Swift’s Private Jet

Jack Sweeney headshot
Photo courtesy of Jack Sweeney

By Susanna Granieri

University of Central Florida student Jack Sweeney is known for tracking celebrity private jets, but over the past few months, his tracking of pop megastar Taylor Swift’s jet has sparked a dispute with Swift’s legal team, which claims that his public sharing of her location puts her personal safety at risk.

Swift’s lawyers sent Sweeney two cease and desist letters requesting he stop publicly sharing her location and delete all prior posts about the singer’s whereabouts on his Instagram and Threads accounts, which have since been removed by Meta.

Sweeney, who runs multiple accounts tracking the movements of several celebrities, argued that the accounts are engaged in “protected speech,” and only utilizes information that is publicly available. The posts also often include how many tons of carbon dioxide emissions were released during the flights, which in Swift’s case, has created a stir on social media.

A representative for Swift told the Washington Post in February, after being asked for evidence of stalkers using Sweeney’s accounts to locate Swift, that they “cannot comment on any ongoing police investigation but can confirm the timing of stalkers suggests a connection. His posts tell you exactly when and where she would be.”

Brooklyn Law School professor Amy Gajda, who specializes in privacy and media law, said privacy and safety concerns could lead to a change in how this data is accessed, and the entity that provides the access to the location of Swift’s jet could “either decide or be forced to limit access in some way — and that decision could be upheld by the nation’s courts.”

“In the past, the Supreme Court has suggested that information about the precise locations of troops and transportation vehicles was so sensitive that publication of such information could be prevented,” she said. “That’s not precisely the same as Taylor Swift in her jet, of course, but it shows some legal support for a privacy argument here despite some level of news value in the information.”

Gajda added the possibility of Sweeney utilizing a newsworthiness defense if the dispute were to escalate to litigation. 

The location of Swift’s plane is newsworthy because her location is newsworthy, she said, and “certainly, if any court decided news value solely by looking at clicks or social media mentions or maybe even Google searches, the newsworthiness of this information would be undeniable.” 

First Amendment Watch spoke with Sweeney about the dispute. He discussed how jet tracking works, the importance of transparency, and his hope that his projects could make this information more accessible.

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

FAW: Why did you start tracking Taylor Swift’s flight location?

JS: Originally when I started tracking the jets, I was just interested in the aviation of people and the stories behind why they were flying, and as it’s gone on, it’s really the transparency behind it, I think is important, because these people want it hidden, whether that’s like, the PR issues or carbon emissions. But I think it’s important to have it out there because these people don’t want it seen.

FAW: Shouldn’t everyone, even massive celebrities like Swift, be afforded some level of privacy? Where do you draw the line between the privacy versus the newsworthiness of this information you’re sharing?

JS: We know the information’s there, I’m just making it more aware. Specifically with the Taylor Swift thing, they’re saying that it’s a physical safety thing, and I’m not taking that lightly, but I haven’t been made aware of real evidence to show, either with Elon [Musk] or Taylor Swift, that shows that I am a problem really. They’re claiming something, but I don’t see anything to be crazily concerned about.

FAW: Why have you been posting tweets of her flight data 24 hours later? Was this always the case? Did you start doing this as a result of the cease and desist letter?

JS: No. [Because of] the rules for Twitter, you can’t share the tracking unless it’s delayed by a day. So that started when Elon suspended my original account. So everywhere else it’s live, except for Twitter, or X.

FAW: What reason did Meta provide for taking down your Threads and Instagram accounts? Were these the two accounts that were included in the cease and desist letter?

JS: So like two hours after I got the letter back on Dec. 22, after that, the accounts got taken down. I didn’t get any type of special notice from employees. So it was just the automated system saying “Oh, you violated the rules,” which is crazy because all of my other jet tracking accounts on Meta are still up. After I posted about it, there’s people claiming that they work there and they said that the team was really debating it and that they provided a special one-time exclusion to suspend the Taylor Swift accounts versus my other accounts.

FAW: Did the notice you received flag which part of Meta terms and conditions that you had violated as a reason for the removal of the Taylor Swift accounts?

JS: It was like privacy and safety, or something like that. It’s saying sharing private information, but it is public information.

FAW: Journalists often rely on the defense that information comes from public documents, and most times these documents are readily available, similar to the data here. But what about the information that isn’t easily accessible? Have you considered that while the information is public, your ability to organize it in a certain way is important here?

JS: I don’t want people to use it in a bad way. But generally, I want to help journalism, and make it easier for people to access, whether it’s tracking a private jet or any other type of jet that isn’t a private jet. I want to make it easier, and that’s really why I want to build a website, so it’s more of a tool that people can use rather than social media. I think then, if it’s more of a website rather than social media, it wouldn’t create such a stir that my accounts have created.

FAW: Are you expecting further issues to arise and are you and your attorney planning to utilize the First Amendment right to publish newsworthy information as a defense?

JS: I don’t think anything will happen, because we responded to them and they have not responded, but they do respond to the media, which kind of tells you that like, it’s more of a PR [thing] and not an actual issue. I’m still doing what I’m doing, there’s no huge reason to make me stop I don’t think.

FAW: I noticed that you tweeted your attorney’s response to the cease and desist letter you received in December with the title of one of Swift’s songs, “Look What You Made Me Do.” The letter explains that all of this data is public record. But, I noticed when searching Swift’s tail number, that it had been privatized at the request of the owner, a real estate company in Missouri. Has this affected your tracking?

JS: So there’s a lot of confusion about this. People think that my data comes from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] website. When I’m looking at planes to see who owns them, I can either FOIA the documents, or I can go to the registration database on the FAA website, which doesn’t block anybody. But regarding the tracking, those websites like FlightAware, or Flightradar24, they receive the signal straight from the planes and they also get live information from the FAA, and when you get information straight from the FAA, you sign a thing for the tracking data from them saying you have to block these certain planes of people that want to be blocked. But if you’re not using the tracking information from the FAA, and you’re using the signals that are coming straight from the plane, then you don’t have to follow those rules, and the transponder signals from the plane are unencrypted. And basically the FCC says that anything that’s not encrypted you’re allowed to receive and decode, and that’s basically how it works. And websites like ADS-B Exchange and OpenSky have been receiving these signals for years now, and they have like 10,000 people receiving it and all sending it to one central location. They’ve received cease and desists like me, as well.

FAW: How many times have you FOIA’d information that was not readily available?

JS: Like five to 10 times. The thing is, the registration database says the owner and stuff, and then the FOIA, what it does, it really kind of proves the owner like even more. Sometimes it’ll show their signature of when they registered the plane like, it shows you Elon Musks’ signature, it shows Taylor Swift signature.

FAW: Is there a long wait time between these requests and your confirmation of ownership? 

JS: It’s just the FAA is slow with a lot of stuff. From what I’ve heard, even when you buy a plane, it takes time to get it registered and then you’re allowed to fly it. It’s just like if you bought a car and you have to go to the DMV. That’s faster of course, but the FAA takes a long time for a lot of stuff. Probably like a month or two I would say, maybe.

FAW: Have you benefited in any way from this project?

JS: Not majorly, I would say. It’s a good thing for my resume that I have my own projects I’m working on. I’ve made some money, but there’s nothing crazy, it would be better off if I went and worked a full-time job, than school and my projects.

FAW: What do you hope to do following graduation?

JS: I would really ideally make more of a tool that people can use and make it more useful. Because I’ve shown that it’s information that does reveal something, but it’s only so useful when I only have it on these small amounts of jets, and so I really want to make it so other people can use the tool. So I mean, I’d love to do something related to aviation and software, if it’s not this exact project.

FAW: You’ve also helped to stir up conversations of carbon emissions from these jets. Was that your goal in starting this project?

JS: Not originally. I would say it’s become more important because I think these people really are trying to hide it, because they think that they can control the entire public aspect of their image and like, if you’re gonna fly, flying is one thing, but as soon as you try to hide it that you are flying, I think it makes it even worse.

More on First Amendment Watch:

Taylor Swift Is Demanding This College Student Stop Tracking Her Private Jet