Recently, a friend asked me why aircraft registration details are made public since related car license plate numbers details are more regulated in access by law. Me, being an avgeek and taking this for granted, do not know why this is. Why are aircraft registration details made public?
1$\begingroup$ It's quite useful for finding certain kinds of international crime, like arms dealing yorksranter.wordpress.com/2005/06/27/… or the CIA rendition flights. $\endgroup$– pjc50Sep 6, 2016 at 20:16
Aircraft registration are no more or less public than car registrations (although they are a bit easier to get access to). Generally speaking you can go down to the DMV and request data on a plate number, for example here is the form for doing it in PA (there is a fee involved). Since cars are registered by state its up to the states how this works, planes however are registered federally and thus governed a bit differently, the FAA provides a nice portal here for looking things up.
In accordance with the underlying statutory framework (49 USC Chapter 441) and as described in the applicable SORN, the information maintained in the aircraft record is available to the public upon request. This is to facilitate aviation safety, security, and commerce, the main purpose for which the record system exists. The public nature of the aircraft record allows for title searches by prospective buyers and/or financiers of aircraft purchases as well as for other interested parties to gather information concerning the aircraft including its airworthiness. The existence of recorded liens against the aircraft as well as the priority of those liens can be determined by a careful review of the documents maintained in the aircraft record.
This is done for a few reasons, first off many things in aviation may be billed by tail number. For example if you fly into an airport, say KPNE which has a city imposed 5$ landing fee, and the FBO for some reason does not collect this. The airport needs a way to look you up to send a bill. The FAA may also do this to make it easier for non-federal employees (local police etc) to access information related to an aircraft.
For what its worth the FAA also lists pilot data pretty freely, however you can now elect to hide your personal data (but not your name)in the FAA portal.
3$\begingroup$ That's basically how government databases work. Grants and amateur radio licenses expose plenty of information. $\endgroup$ Sep 7, 2016 at 0:53