China recently banned Chinese users from accessing the Flightradar24 website—a global-sharing network of flight tracking— for fear that “important aviation data” might be transferred to foreign countries and that some sort of “espionage acts” would divulge military aircrafts’ movements and endanger national security, according to state-owned CCTV.
On Oct. 31, CCTV aired a program about an “anti-spyware law,” which did not directly name Flightradar24. but the program showed its web pages when the topic shifted to aviation data security, “espionage acts,” marine garbage, and ship data.
The Flightradar24 website, founded in 2006 by two Swedish aviation enthusiasts, allows anyone worldwide with an ADS-B device to upload 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 186-mile radius including flight speed, altitude, latitude, longitude, and other measurements. This data is then transmitted to the Flightradar24 website and app.
CCTV claims that ADS-B devices can monitor aircraft signals and the flight paths in all of China’s airspace, from civil aircraft to some military aircraft.
China’s National Security Bureau worried that the device would expose military aircrafts’ movements, the mouthpiece media said.
As a result, the CCP’s (Chinese Communist Party’s) Great Firewall has blocked completely the Flightradar24 website. Chinese users could not access the website, and the Flightradar24 app was also taken down at the end of October, according to state-owned Chinese media.
ADS-B Technology Contributes to Flight Safety
Li Jianjun, a senior media worker, told Radio Free Asia that the data received by the ADS-B device is not a state secret.
Some new models of aircraft 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 major aviation data like position, speed, and route to avoid colliding 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 to assume control of aviation. Therefore, ADS-B signal-tracking devices are part of aviation safety, rather than being a state secret, Li said.
In addition, the Flightradar24 website can be helpful for analyzing civil aircraft crashes or incidents. For example, the BBC used a video from Flightradar24 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 pictures from Flightradar24.
Flightradar24 provides aircraft enthusiasts worldwide with a receiving device that does not emit signals itself but is a passive way to receive GPS signals and nearby ADS-B signals—the same principle as a radio, Li explained.
CCTV’s Fabricated Story and CCP’s National Security
The Flightradar24 website aggregates information from various sources, including the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and many other countries. All data is provided by volunteers with ADS-B devices and is open for public use.
Since most Chinese people know very little about Flightradar24, CCTV subliminally implied in this program that the website was created for scouting out China, and that it poses a hazard to China’s national security.
According to this program, in 2020, China’s 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 that could receive 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.
In the program, CCTV interviewed a “photography enthusiast” who said that he signed up as a volunteer, because he was curious and also lured by senior membership benefits. After receiving approval from the website, he received the ADS-B equipment three months later.
The interviewee continued his story, saying that he was upset that the device could detect foreign military aircraft, so he dismantled it, thinking to himself that it was “involved in the leaking of information.”
The man, however, did not tell how the police found him or how he accepted the interview by CCTV.
The suggested message in the program alerted Chinese people that anyone who accessed the website and utilized the ADS-B device would be accused of involvement in espionage activities.
Chinese authorities seem to have more and more difficulty understanding with common sense, said Radio Free Asia.
The media cited Li as saying, “Because the CCP is an authoritarian regime, it treats data that is easily available as if it were a state secret and prohibits the sharing of useful data to the world.”
Li said that even if China has blocked the use of Flightradar24’s ADS-B receivers, the device could still obtain information about the movement of Chinese aircraft through satellites.
“If China does not use ADS-B technology, it may cause a blockage in China’s aviation operations, which will be a big problem for the country,” he said.