Geneva Twitter bot flags up dictators’ planes

Geneva airport is the second most important hub in Europe for business aviation after Paris-Le Bourget getty Images

An open-source computer programme identifies planes flying into Geneva airport which belong to authoritarian regimes and raises the alert via Twitter. The creators of the GVA Dictator Alert now want to install the device in other airports.

This content was published on October 25, 2016
Frédéric Burnand, Genève,

The programme, launched in April by a group of investigative journalistsExternal link, mines data captured by the network of antennaeExternal link used by plane spotters. In Geneva, this was provided by the association of airport residentsExternal link. Civilian planes emit signals which give the plane number and location.

These data are scanned by the computer, which uses a list of around 100 planes coming from some 20 dictatorships. Whenever one of these planes – most often private jets – touches down at Geneva airport, the computer “welcomes” it via the social network Twitter:

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The software was the result of an investigation into the clan of Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, president of Equatorial Guinea since 1979. Reportedly highly corrupt, his regime has close ties with Geneva.

“He’s the winner!” said project organiser François Pilet. “Of the hundred or so computer alerts, almost 30 were for planes belonging to the Obiang clan – an amount that can’t all be put down to diplomatic reasons.”

In fact the Geneva public prosecutor this year opened an investigation into Teodorin Obiang, the dictator’s son, who is also being prosecuted in France for laundering funds originating from the misuse of corporate assets, for misappropriation of public money and for corruption. Some of his fortune is now thought to have passed through Switzerland.

The Twitter bot obviously can’t say why a plane is coming to Geneva, “but whenever a plane lands, we should ask ourselves why," said Pilet, who has also noted significant comings and goings of ruling families from Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

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And the journalists aren’t stopping with Geneva. They hope to set up in the coming weeks a similar programme elsewhere, for example in Paris, London or Zurich.

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