Elon Musk’s past 24 hours at the helm of Twitter have been absurd. As part of a sudden war on open source information gathering that pertains to him, personally, Musk has banned the account of ADS-B Exchange, a site that uses open source data to track flight patterns.
The site will survive without its Twitter account, but the policy changes at Twitter and the banning of aviation tracking accounts is part of a pattern that’s dealing a blow to the open source intelligence community, a group of professionals and enthusiasts who document war crimes, investigate criminal cases, and share information in real time on Twitter.
On December 14, Twitter updated its Terms of Service after it had banned @ElonJet, an automated account that tweeted out the location of Musk’s private jet using ADS-B data, and dozens of associated accounts that tracked the flights of other billionaires, celebrities, and Russian oligarchs. This is public information that’s protected by the First Amendment. But Twitter’s new ToS states that any live tracking will be considered an abuse of the platform.
“The shot just fired by this platform at the [open source intelligence] community & flight tracking accounts is stunning. Using blanket rules to deal with a single unique situation is telling,” Tyler Rogoway, the Editor-In-Chief of The War Zone, said on Twitter. “Open source flight tracking has become a critical tool for reporting on events & important subjects.”
Aric Toler of Bellingcat told Motherboard the new policy might lead to an exodus of some OSINT people from Twitter. And although the researchers will retain their capabilities, it will ultimately limit the public’s knowledge.
“It doesn't change any of the actual capabilities,” he said. “Just stifles aviation geek Twitter, which does have some of the best discussion out there. But they'll adapt and probably go in full force to some new platform. All those banned bots just lift info from sites all researchers know how to fetch data from themselves easily. So it mostly limits the public, mass appeal of the data rather than the research capabilities themselves.”
Aram Shabanian, the Open-Source Information Gathering Manager at New Lines Institute, told Motherboard that Musk had just made his job harder. “He's not going to make my job impossible by any means, but he will make it significantly more time-consuming to easily connect with and collaborate with other like-minded individuals using the same methods I do,” he said.
“The banning of live updates is just a one step, and as his pathetic mid-life crisis continues we will probably see him taking more drastic, destructive actions,” he continued. “He's not going to kill the profession, but he's going to make the barrier for entry a lot higher for folks like me, who don't have the institutional or social background to easily break into the think tank/OSINT world.”
Shabanian told Motherboard he didn’t think Musk wasn’t done fucking things up. “One manchild's tiny ego has done significant damage to what was once a thriving, if troubled, online community of nerds and nerd-adjacent individuals who brought together a vast and disparate knowledge set,” he said. “What we're witnessing in real-time is a mod meltdown, and I think it will end with Musk relinquishing control over Twitter one way or another.”
Both Toler and Shabanian noted they don’t expect the policy to be applied equally. Indeed, the episode began with the banning of a Musk-specific tracking account and spiraled from there. “This will be ultra-selectively enforced and is incredibly stupid so hard to say what'll happen tomorrow, let alone months or years from now,” Toler said.
“This is just making things up retroactively to justify banning people who annoy you,” Shabanian said. “And as he continues to listen to more and more far-right voices he's going to increasingly target voices that oppose their views.”
Ironically, Musk has also encouraged OSINT—to benefit him. At the end of Musk's thread announcing his justification for the live tracking policy, he claimed that someone had blocked a car in LA carrying his child and that the person had jumped on the hood. Then, he posted a video of an unknown man that showed the front license plate of their car. “Anyone recognize this person or car?” Musk tweeted to his 121 million followers.
In the replies to the threads, Musk fans took a crack at using OSINT to track down the person who owned the car. I asked Toler, who recently used a single photo to geolocate a Russian missile programming team, how he felt about watching amateurs using OSINT to help Elon Musk.
“It's as if Qanon researchers had suffered lead poisoning,” he said.