The ‘madness’ of increased airline safety

Are we going to live our lives or duck-and-cover because of the threat of terrorism? You often can’t do both, and a developing controversy over a bit of technology today shows why.

Last week, I “tweeted” about a new iPhone app that allows you to to point your smartphone to an airplane in the sky and see its destination, altitude and speed displayed.


Because we’re so conditioned, it only took a few days for the first “terrorists could use it” response.

“Phone app that tracks planes ‘is aid to terrorists armed with missiles'” the Daily Mail reported today.

Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, former chairman of the Parliamentary Counter Terrorism sub-committee, said: ‘Anything that makes it easier for our enemies to find targets is madness. The Government must look at outlawing the marketing of such equipment.’

The blog, TechDirt, steps forward to defend the app, while attacking the availability of the data:

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.

Yes, what were they thinking when they made such information available in the first place?

They were thinking a cool app would be one that kept planes from crashing into each other, or one that lessened flight delays, or one that would lead to less environmental damage from airliners.

The data is public for a reason. It’s part of a new system, called ADS-B, which provides information about a plane and broadcasts it not only to ground stations, but also to other airplanes. It’s the backbone of a new air traffic control system. It also will provide real time weather to pilots of even the smallest airplanes. Consider the number of airliners and small planes that have been lost in weather-related accidents. Compare it to the number that have been shot down by terrorists.

September 11, 2001 didn’t happen with fancy gadgets and high technology. It happened because someone figured out what you could do with this tool…


… which today sells for about $8 in any hardware store in America.

Ironically, the system is a significant enhancement over the transponder system used with present-day radar. When the hijackers of 9/11 took control of the airplanes, one of the first things they did was turn off the airplanes’ transponders, which robbed air traffic controllers of some information about where they were and where they might be heading. That might be more difficult with ADS-B.

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