China recently banned Chinese users to access the Flightradar24 website – a global flight tracking sharing network – for fear that “important aeronautical data” will be transferred to foreign countries and that some kind of “spying acts” would disclose the movements of military aircraft and endanger national security, according to state-owned CCTV.
On October 31, CCTV aired a program on an “anti-spyware law”, which did not directly name Flightradar24. but the program showed its web pages when the topic moved to aeronautical data security“acts of espionage”, marine litter and vessel data.
Flightradar24 websitefounded in 2006 by two Swedish aviation enthusiasts, allows anyone around the world with an ADS-B device to download data.
ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast) is a surveillance technology that tracks all aircraft equipped with the same device. It detects flight data within a range of 186 miles, including flight speed, altitude, latitude, longitude and other measurements. This data is then transmitted to the Flightradar24 website and app.
CCTV says ADS-B devices can monitor aircraft signals and flight paths throughout Chinese airspace, from civilian aircraft to some military aircraft.
China’s National Security Bureau was concerned that the device could reveal the movements of military aircraft, the spokesperson said.
As a result, the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) Great Firewall completely blocked the Flightradar24 website. Chinese users were unable to access the website and the Flightradar24 app was also taken down in late October, according to Chinese state-owned media.
ADS-B technology contributes to flight safety
Li Jianjun, a senior media official, said Radio Libre Asia that the data received by the ADS-B device is not a state secret.
Some new aircraft models in Europe, the United States and some Asian countries are equipped with ADS-B devices to communicate with other aircraft in the same airspace. They can manage key aeronautical data such as position, speed, and route to avoid collisions with other passenger or military aircraft.
In the event of an airport tower radar failure, the ADS device, through interaction with some websites such as Flightradar24, can help gain control of aviation. Therefore, ADS-B signal tracking devices are part of aviation security, rather than a state secret, Li said.
Additionally, the Flightradar24 website can be useful for analyzing civil aircraft accidents or incidents. For instance, the BBC used Flightradar24 video to report the Malaysian Airlines 370 crash in 2014, and The Guardian reported that the Icelandic volcano eruption caused European flight chaos in 2010, using images from Flightradar24.
Flightradar24 provides aircraft enthusiasts around the world with a receiving device that does not emit signals itself but is a passive means of receiving nearby GPS signals and ADS-B signals – the same principle as a radio, Li Explain.
The Fabricated History of CCTV and the National Security of the CCP
The Flightradar24 website aggregates information from a variety of sources, including the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and many other countries. All data is provided by volunteers with ADS-B devices and is open to the public.
Since most Chinese people know very little about Flightradar24, CCTV subliminally implied in this program that the website was created to track China and posed a danger to Chinese national security.
According to this program, in 2020, Chinese security agencies discovered that several other agencies outside of China had set up websites and used social media platforms such as Weibo and QQ to provide Chinese aviation fans with equipment capable of receiving and share data. These agencies reportedly offered lifetime premium memberships as “bait” to recruit volunteers to “collect relevant data” and provide the world with information about Chinese aircraft, especially military aircraft.
On the show, CCTV interviewed a “photography enthusiast” who said he signed up as a volunteer because he was curious and also attracted to senior member benefits. After receiving website approval, he received ADS-B equipment three months later.
The interviewee went on to say that he was upset that the device could detect foreign military aircraft, so he took it apart, thinking he was “involved in leaking information”.
The man, however, did not say how the police found him or how he accepted the CCTV interview.
The suggested message in the alerted program Chinese people that anyone who has accessed the website and used the ADS-B device would be accused of involvement in espionage activities.
The Chinese authorities seem to have more and more difficulty in understanding with common sense, notes Radio Free Asia.
The media quoted Li as saying, “Because the CCP is an authoritarian regime, it treats readily available data as a state secret and prohibits the sharing of useful data to the world.”
Li said that even if China blocked the use of Flightradar24’s ADS-B receivers, the device could still obtain information about the movement of Chinese planes via satellites.
“If China doesn’t use ADS-B technology, it could cause China’s flight operations to stall, which will be a big problem for the country,” he said.