An impressive technical achievement

Written by larry on August 2nd, 2012

There are a number of services out there that take the raw data feed provided by the FAA of flights in progress and convert it into something more interesting than a spreadsheet full of number.  seems to be the most popular of them, and as it works just fine for both private flights and air carriers, it can be a pretty handy thing.

Less so if you’re a celebrity, and you’re not particularly interested in having your private jet met by crowds of paparazzi every time you land somewhere. So the FAA created something called BARR, which stands for Block Aviation Registration Request. Get on the list, and the FAA will expunge your registration number from the data provided to third parties. Problem solved.

Except for a couple of techie types who saw the BARR program itself as a problem that needed to be solved. With a bit of work, they created’ve got a server that listens on a number of aviation frequencies and performs voice recognition to identify registration numbers of interest, thereby identifying planes whether their registration number is blocked or not.

From an engineer’s perspective, I’m quite impressed that it was possible to make this work… though I’m not sure just how reliable it can be. I suspect that the narrower the problem, the easier. That is, while it might be tough to generate a list of registration numbers detected, it would be somewhat easier to determine whether, for example, the registration number for Barbara Streisand’s plane was heard.

And of course, once you get past the technological achievement there are the privacy concerns. Part of me is of the mindset that if someone wants some privacy I’ll respect their wishes. But on the other hand, its tough to get upset about someone automating a process that could easily be done by a minimum-wage journalism intern sitting in front of an air-band scanner and writing down what he hears.

Bottom line, if I were Mr. Hoffman or Rezchikov (Openbarr’s creators), I’d run for a while, enjoy the fame, dodge the arrows, and then shut it down, saying ‘it was fun’. But on the other hand, the genie is now out of the bottle. It would be pretty trivial for someone else to replicate their effort and place the result in the public domain. So the lives of the paparazzi will remain incrementally simplified, at least until the next round.


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