Jack Sweeney didn’t set out to become a climate activist or a celebrity-jet whisperer. But after the University of Central Florida student created 30 bot accounts to follow various private jets of the rich and famous, from sports teams to celebrities to Elon Musk, Sweeney found himself in a funny situation. He ended up face-to-tweet with Musk himself, whom he one day hoped to work for. Sweeney had been trailing Musk’s jet for over a year and a half on Twitter when the Tesla creator and part-time internet troll attempted to shut down one of his accounts in January, offering Sweeney a mere $5,000 to delete the tracking program. Sweeney agreed — but only if Musk were to give him a Tesla or an internship. Musk never replied, so he kept on trackin’.
Sweeney isn’t the type to care about what celebrities are up to. (He doesn’t even have a favorite celeb besides Musk and Mark Cuban.) A quiet, straightforward guy, he’s all about numbers and data, and it was his genuine curiosity around tracking systems that led him to what would become his biggest project: @CelebJets. The account became a phenomenon on Twitter as fans used it to keep an eye on their favorite celebs; Swifties used the tracker to determine if Taylor Swift would attend this year’s Met Gala, and others used it to criticize the Jenner-Kardashian clan. @CelebJets also tracks the costs of carbon-dioxide emissions and jet fuel, inadvertently spotlighting celebrities like Swift, Kylie Jenner, and Drake for their frequent flights (those last two over their short trips in particular). Musk’s five-minute excursion from LAX to Van Nuys Airport holds the record for the shortest trip at 19 miles. In addition to Musk, other celebrities started to defend their flights (or flights they didn’t take), but Sweeney hasn’t backed down and continues to let the data do the talking. Vulture tracked down the tracker himself to ask him about the inspiration behind @CelebJets, the power of public data, and which celeb he would still take a plane ride with.
What inspired you to create @CelebJets?
Well, I started off with @ElonJet originally because I was interested in Elon, SpaceX, and Tesla. Then I saw there was so much interest. And I knew there were people interested in celebrities, but there was also the emissions aspect, so I thought it’d be interesting to share all these other celebrities that people are interested in and show what’s going on with them, too.
What is the specific data you pull, and how is it accessed by the public?
I used ADS-B data from one company called ADS-B Exchange, which all planes are pretty much required to transmit ADS-B, over the air frequency like AM or FM radio. Planes transmit data on an open frequency that any company or person can receive that data and decode it. It’ll say what the plane’s identity is, its speed — all that information. The ADS-B Exchange has a network of receivers, and I get that data, and I look for the planes of interest with their linear data files. They can be tracked, basically where they’re going and who owns them, through the identifiers linked to the registration of the plane.
How soon after takeoff or landing is the data posted on Twitter?
Pretty much instantly. The latest delay would be, like, a minute.
When did the account start picking up traction?
Most of my other accounts before I started @CelebJets were pretty big, so it was as soon as I announced it. It started gaining followers, but it really gained a lot of traction within the past three months with Kylie Jenner, Taylor Swift, and Drake stuff.
Speaking of the celebs like Kylie Jenner and Drake, what do you have to say about celebrities defending their shorter flights by saying they’re only moving the jets from one location to another?
They’re probably being truthful. But the thing is if it’s still their plane and it’s only being flown just to move it, it’s still their responsibility. It’s still their footprint.
Are you worried about A-listers calling you out, similar to how Elon did?
Not really, because it’s all legal, public data. They just don’t wanna be tracked. I’m surprised [none of the] celebrities have really said anything on [@CelebJets].
I know you said that celebrities haven’t reached out about the actual account, but have any reached out to you about your new carbon-offset companies that were recently launched?
No, not yet. There hasn’t been a lot of attention on that right now.
What was the most surprising thing you learned as the account grew in popularity?
It’s crazy how fast this stuff will spread on social media, even just a small amount of information. People start creating memes and jokes, and it just spreads like wildfire.
I read in your Fortune interview that climate justice was not your main goal when creating the account. If your original intention was not to be a climate activist, then what did you set out to accomplish with the account, and do you think it was successful?
Originally, it was just an idea to share what people were interested in: celebrities. I was like, I’ll just share it too. I’d say I’ve done what I wanted and more.
Have you ever thought about doing something similar with celebrity yachts?
Yeah, it’s just, like, my program is written for planes, and there is data out there for yachts. I haven’t really messed with it yet.
Since the account gained popularity, have you noticed a change in flight patterns from celebrities?
I think so. Kim Kardashian’s or Kylie Jenner’s plane would normally take off from Camarillo to Van Nuys and then it would continue on its trip. But a couple of days ago, I saw that the plane went right from Camarillo to its final destination.
Have you ever flown in a private jet before?
No, not yet.
Is there a celebrity jet you would go on if they offered you a ride?
Definitely Elon. Probably Mark Cuban, too. I don’t know about any other celebrity.
Even after your interactions with Elon, you would still wanna ride on a plane with him?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.