A Swiss journalist has created a Twitter bot that tracks dictators’ flights to and from Geneva, as part of a crowdsourced effort to shed light on potentially shady dealings. The bot, called GVA Dictator Alert, tracks planes registered to authoritarian governments and automatically posts their arrivals and departures to Twitter. Since launching in April, the bot has posted more than 60 arrivals and departures to its Twitter page, and is currently tracking 80 different aircraft registered to repressive governments.
The idea, according to freelance investigative journalist François Pilet, is to add some transparency to what he describes as "a very secret world." Pilet acknowledges that some of the dictators he tracks may have legitimate reasons for traveling to Geneva — the Swiss city is home to the United Nations and several other international organizations — though they could just as easily be visiting to evade taxes or launder money, as previous reports have shown. Mapping out their flights, he says, allows journalists to pick up on travel patterns that could lead to more substantive investigations.
"are they coming just to hide the money they stole from their people?"
"I think every time that we see a plane from, say Equatorial Guinea, we should think about it," Pilet said in a phone interview this week. "Why is the guy coming here? Is the guy coming here for diplomatic reasons, because his country's representatives are having political debates? Or are they coming just to hide the money they stole from their people?"
Pilet came up with the idea for GVA Dictator Alert while writing a story about the autocratic leader of Equatorial Guinea, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who has been in power for more than 30 years. The report, published in the Swiss Magazine L'Hebdo, meticulously detailed the frequent trips that Obiang made to Geneva, including those on an Equatorial Guinean airline that has been banned from European airspace.
To report the story, Pilet used data gathered daily by an amateur aircraft spotter who set up an antenna to track flights in and out of Geneva. The equipment receives ADS-B signals that communicate the unique tail number and location of every plane that enters and leaves the airport, which allowed Pilet to map out Obiang's Geneva itineraries.
There's a large online community of plane spotters who use similar equipment to track planes across the globe — FlightRadar24 is perhaps the most popular resource — so Pilet decided to create a bot that would use this data to automatically flag planes that are publicly registered to authoritarian governments. Working together with his cousin, former Google engineer Julien Pilet, he developed a tool that scans antenna signals around Geneva every hour, and automatically posts to Twitter whenever a marked plane enters the city's airspace. Arrivals and departure are posted to the Twitter page in straightforward and precise terms: "A dictator's plane left #gva airport: A320 used by the royal family of Qatar (A7-AAG) on 2016/10/10 at 09:11:02."
"Hi, you are here and now it's public."
GVA Dictator Alert is currently keeping tabs on planes that have been publicly registered by 20 authoritarian governments, including Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Qatar, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The project relies on flight data shared by amateur plane spotters around Geneva, though Pilet hopes to expand it to other airports across Europe. He also aims to gather data from private jets, if he can obtain verifiable registration numbers, as well as information on private boats and yachts, which use similar transponder technology to communicate their location.
Pilet acknowledges that simply tracking flights to and from Geneva won't say much about what dictators are doing there, though he thinks it could send a message to leaders who may have grown accustomed to conducting their Swiss business in near-total secrecy.
"When they come in a private jet to Geneva, they think they are hidden," Pilet says. "And I think it’s a cool idea to know that every time the front wheel of their plane touches the tarmac in Geneva, there’s a tweet saying 'hi, you are here, and now it's public.'"