FAA Acts To Preserve ADS-B Data Privacy


A side effect of the FAA’s move toward mandatory ADS-B position reporting next year is the ability for anyone to see a given aircraft’s position and identification, which raises privacy concern for pilots and aircraft owners. Now the FAA will make it possible for owners to opt out of broadcasting ADS-B data in a way that directly reveals the aircraft’s identity.

The first stage of what the FAA calls the Privacy ICAO Address (PIA) Program will be implemented for the start of the mandatory ADS-B Out equipage on Jan. 1, 2020. According to the FAA, it will set up a web portal where operators can request that their aircraft’s ICAO address and position not be publicly visible. Also, according to the National Business Aviation Association, the FAA said it would “establish new data-sharing limits for air traffic tracking service providers if operators want to opt out of having their flight information broadcast over the internet. Those limits are expected to go in effect by year-end.” 

The second phase of the PIA process will be to move it to a third-party service provider sometime mid-year 2020. And with that will come improved opportunities to apply for a new “pseudo” identification separate from the aircraft registration. During the FAA’s management of the program, operators can change no more often than every 60 days, but once transitioned to third-party management, registrants in the PIA can change their coded IDs every 20 days. 

These features are available only for U.S.-registered aircraft operating in U.S. airspace and that have 1090 ADS-B equipment. 

“We’re pleased the FAA has responded positively to ADS-B privacy concerns of operators, which NBAA has raised in numerous government/industry forums, including with the NextGen Advisory Committee,” said NBAA President and CEO Ed Bolen. “Until now, the lack of a privacy solution has been a disincentive for some operators to equip with ADS-B. No one should have to surrender their privacy and security just because they board an airplane.”

Heidi Williams, NBAA’s director of air traffic services and infrastructure, said, “Retaining privacy after equipping with ADS-B Out ensures that the aircraft isn’t transmitting information that can be tracked back to the registry. This will encourage those operators that have not already equipped their aircraft with ADS-B to do so, which will help expedite aircraft handling as part of the FAA’s Next-Generation (NextGen) air traffic management system.”

An “anonymous” mode is available for aircraft using the 978 UAT form of ADS-B Out but only when not squawking a discreet transponder code and the installed hardware supports it. 

Marc Cook
KITPLANES Editor in Chief Marc Cook has been in aviation journalism for more than 30 years. He is a 4000-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. He’s completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glasair Sportsman 2+2, and currently flies a 2002 GlaStar.

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  1. It’s an UNENCRYPTED and UNAUTHENTICATED broadcast.
    Tell me, how can the FAA can stop this main “feature” that they cooked into ADS-B?

  2. > It’s an UNENCRYPTED and UNAUTHENTICATED broadcast.

    Has to be otherwise traffic doesn’t work. Other airplanes have to hear your ADS-B messages and be able to decode them to plot their location relative to yours for traffic avoidance.

    > Tell me, how can the FAA can stop this main “feature” that they cooked into ADS-B?

    PIA is hiding the identity of the airplane transmitting by giving it an ICAO address that isn’t tied to the plane’s registration. Someone listening can hear the transmission, know where the plane is (necessary for traffic), but not know who the plane is since the PIA is not connected publicly to the aircraft registration, thus protecting the identity of the plane. The plane can still get ATC services because the FAA knows the PIA, but no one else knows.

    This is way batter than anonymous mode of UAT because anonymous mode prevents receiving ATC services such as flight following IFR, and so forth. PIA doesn’t prevent ATC services, it just makes listeners unable to correlate aircraft registration to ICAO address broadcast in ADS-B messages.

    The main negative is that the FAA requires you operate under a call sign. This makes it mostly unworkable for the average pilot flying his own airplane, so the system seems designed mostly for the corporate types. This may change in the future as their will be more demand for private call signs given this change.

    • ” Other airplanes have to hear your ADS-B messages and be able to decode them ”
      That should be done by ENCRYPTION and AUTHENTICATION. That gives safety(authentication) and security(encryption). Besides that, ask yourself WHY do not need to know N-Numbers for traffic alerts?

      “PIA is hiding the identity of the airplane transmitting by giving it an ICAO address”
      Why operate with addresses at all since ATC uses transponders to control traffic. Let ATC tag their screen targets with N Numbers if they want to watch N Numbers for some reason.

      This was all brought up 10-15 years ago and the FAA is just NOW worried about it right before the implementation deadline? No one outside ATC needs N-Numbers (or pseudo N-Number codes), Period. ATC already can tag targets so the entire idea of openly broadcasting identification in clear text is lunacy.

  3. What I don’t “get” is … why are aircraft registrations visible to anyone? Vehicle registrations aren’t open info online … why should aircraft registrations? I can be driving by an airport, see an N number and instantly get to the registration info with a smart phone. I can’t do this with a vehicle. This is baloney. Of course, most “heavy hitters” can mask their registration info but — still — why should it even be visible?

    In flight, seems to me that what type of A/C a target is is more important than the Flight ID. When receiving ADS-B in transmissions directly, I can’t tell a G5 from a powered parachute other than by speed. It’d be easy for FAA computers to transmit A/C type via ADS-R but ADS-B direct … I dunno. I guess the Flight ID could be changed to a “type” from a list the FAA might publish.

    As it is now, I can take a flight, check Flight Aware and there in nice bright bold type is my name and A/C type. Also baloney !! I just did this.

    • And you can bet that “third party service” won’t be free … a profit making enterprise for some entrepreneur !!

      I can register my airplane for $5 but I’m betting a privacy service will cost more than that. BRAVO SIERRA !!

  4. I’m with Mark F. on this, and stated when the ADS/B-out mandate was proposed that I would not comply until my tail number was not visible to non-ATC entities (including ATC from whom I was not getting services). None of the dozens of other licenses, registrations, permits, or permissions I hold are visible to anyone who is not in my immediate vicinity.

    Also note that in this article, everyone speaks of the PIA feature of “ADS-B”, “ADS-B data”, and “ADS-B privacy”, including the NBAA talking heads. It isn’t until the third ‘graph that the article mentions “oh yeah, PIA is available only to the high-rollers”. Only after describing how “anonymous mode” isn’t available if you are using ATC services, does the article mention that it’s the only mode available to everyone who has gone ahead and equipped with 978UAT to meet the mandate.

    It’s hard not to visualize the FAA and the NBAA/airlines sitting around a polished mahogany table saying “It’s a win-win: we get our privacy, and those putzes in their Skyhawks can either give up theirs, or get out of our airspace.”

    • I’m sorry to vent, but the title here here is “To Preserve ADS-B Data Privacy” when there was NO PRIVACY designed into this system to begin with! How can you say you want to “preserve” privacy after you’ve specifically mandated most of it away under penalty of law? This is literally nuts.

  5. Here’s a NEW slant on the issue. At Airventure 2017 when I was shopping for ADS-B, I talked with a FAA guy who seemed “knowledgeable” — I know … an oxymoron. He was the ADS-B point man. We discussed the anonymous mode of 978UAT. HE said that the FAA had some sort of way of decoding that using a known algorithm. He said it’d take some time but could be done. So IF that’s true (?), there is NO anonymity ultimately. “They” got many of us to drink the koolaid and now we find out it’s poison!

    Mark my words … automated violations are coming next !! It’ll be like the red light cameras in some cities.

    • I have already been told by my company that due to what ADS-B is capable of to be careful with speeds when under class B airspace, class D, or below 10,000ft. ADS-B readout are supposed to be able to get actual air speeds of planes with the possibility of getting an air speed violation based on that readout. Would not be surprised if the FAA started issuing user fees based on ADS-B data along with the change requiring ICAO flight plans for domestic flights.

      • Just Sunday I flew a last flight prior to pickling my airplane for the winter. I had some pretty good airspeeds just boring holes and when I looked at it on Flight Aware after … there it was … EXACTLY what I saw in flight and corroborated via the GPS. I now watch altitude so I don’t bust the 500′ or 1,000′ rules. SO … you’re right. BE CAREFUL, guys. Programming a computer to analyze a flight’s profile is the next logical step by the guys that’re here ta help us. And user fees .. OY !!