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The situation illustrates the tensions around “preserving a traditional understanding of privacy” in a world littered with “digital breadcrumbs,” Northeastern legal expert Elettra Bietti says.

Taylor Swift looking excited. She's in a large crowd.
Taylor Swift reacts following the NFL Super Bowl LVIII game against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, February 11, 2024 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ben Liebenberg via AP

Taylor Swift is gearing up for yet another legal dispute — this time with a 21-year-old University of Central Florida college student who had been sharing information about the celebrity’s trips via her private jet.

The pop star sent Jack Sweeney a cease-and-desist letter in December, alleging that by sharing tracking information over social media Sweeney engaged in “stalking and harassing behavior” that “poses an imminent threat to [Swift’s] safety and well-being.” 

Elettra Bietti, an assistant professor at Northeastern’s School of Law and Khoury College of Computer Sciences, says the situation illustrates the tensions around “preserving a traditional understanding of privacy” in a world littered with “digital breadcrumbs.”

Bietti says that U.S. law doesn’t really protect anyone against the disclosure of publicly available information. The data Sweeney shares is publicly available from the Federal Aviation Administration, among other mundane sources. 

Headshot of Elettra Bietti wearing yellow in a warm-looking glass building.
Elettra Bietti, assistant professor of law and computer science, poses for a portrait in Dockser hall. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“The tort of intrusion upon seclusion would only hold the student liable for intentionally intruding upon the solitude or seclusion or the private affairs of [Taylor Swift] if the information collected were of a confidential nature,” she says. “It doesn’t apply to publicly available jet location information.”

The same conclusion applies, Bietti says, with the tort of public disclosure of private facts, which is only applicable if the facts publicized are of a “private nature.”

“The tort of defamation is about reputational losses, and the threshold for holding anyone liable for disclosing reputationally damaging facts about a celebrity’s life is higher than with ordinary persons,” she says. “It doesn’t seem to me that information about one’s location could be construed as defamatory.

Sweeney, who also posted information about Musk’s private jet usage that resulted in the billionaire suspending his X account and threatening legal action, manages several social media accounts monitoring and publicizing private jet usage among other celebrities, politicians and the mega-wealthy to highlight their environmental impact.

Still, Bietti suggests it might be time to re-examine U.S. privacy laws.

“In general, the law of privacy developed in a context that was internet-less, and so many of these torts focus on distinction between the private and the public sphere that no longer exists so neatly,” Bietti says. “In the current context — and given the wide availability of information about each of us — protections for the diffusion of sensitive information may be needed.”

Speaking to “Good Morning America” this week, James Slater of Slater Legal PLLC, Sweeney’s attorney, said that Swift’s move is “the latest string in an effort by a rich and powerful person to try to silence public criticism and free speech.”

“We wanted to really hit home that there is no legal claim here; that this is just public information,” he said. “He is just tracking jets, and there is a purpose. These jets are emitting an insane amount of carbon emissions.”

Bietti also notes that the focus on Swift and her private jet usage misses a larger point about privacy in the digital age: that all of us — celebrities and ordinary citizens alike — are vulnerable. 

“The more pernicious problem is how a world of digital breadcrumbs is affecting ordinary people, including the most vulnerable among us,” she says. 

“We all leave digital breadcrumbs behind and the law hardly affords us any protections against intruders or sophisticated data scientists able to infer sensitive information about our lives,” she adds. “A federal privacy law could include those aspects, but it isn’t on the horizon right now.”

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