Tech the halls: How NORAD keeps tabs on Santa

For 62 years, NORAD's tracked Santa Claus as he makes his Christmas Eve deliveries. Here's how.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
4 min read

About 1,500 volunteers answer questions about where Santa is every year. 

Dennis Carlyle

Editor's note: This story is safe for children, kids at heart and true Santa Claus believers.

For more than a half century, Santa Claus has had company -- aside from the reindeer, of course -- during his Christmas Eve journey around the world.

It's not a rogue elf looking to start a new life in a more temperate climate, or a joyriding polar bear. It's tons of tech, courtesy of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

Since way back in 1955, when a typo in an ad directed kids to call Santa at what was actually a secret military hotline, NORAD has been keeping a whimsical eye on Santa, in the spirit of wishful kids everywhere. It's not an easy task considering the jolly old elf can travel faster than starlight, according to the organization that protects the airspace above the US and Canada.

"NORAD has a lot of technologies that we use to keep North America safe. We can use that very same technology to help keep Santa safe as he travels around the world," said Chris Hache, a lieutenant-commander in the Royal Canadian Navy who'll be volunteering for a third year in 2017 with NORAD Tracks Santa.

So, on Dec. 24, NORAD has its defense satellites trained on a sleigh and nine tiny reindeer.

The tech that tracks Santa

Though Santa's long been an international man of mystery, he's not lively or quick enough to evade the government (and who is?).

NORAD's North Warning System -- a radar array of 47 installations across the northern border of North America -- is the first bit of tech to bring Santa under surveillance on Christmas Eve. The system lets NORAD know when Santa's packed up and leaving his home base at the North Pole.

When the big guy finally enters Canadian airspace, CF-18 fighter jets from Bagotville, Quebec, are waiting to escort him around the country. After he's finished in the Great White North, the Canadians hand off Santa to American pilots.

Marco Chouinard, a lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy and spokesman for NORAD Tracks Santa, said Santa actually has to slow down so the jets can keep up. So if Santa's running behind schedule, you know who to blame.

Up in space, satellites keep a lookout for the infrared signature off Rudolph's nose. NORAD's also got cameras strategically positioned in big cities and at key landmarks like the Statue of Liberty to catch the Christmas Eve crew as they zip around delivering gifts.

Flight data

Much like the rest of us, Santa leaves a data trail. All that information is relayed to the ground at Peterson Air Force base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where about 1,500 volunteers work two-hour shifts starting at 4 a.m. local time, and spend the day fielding questions from kids and adults about recent sleigh-riding activity.  

Hache said that while every phone call to 1-877-Hi-NORAD is about Christmas, volunteers can never know for sure what callers will be asking. Sometimes kids want to know how the reindeer are doing or how exactly NORAD knows what it knows.

"It's a state of constant ringing and joy and everyone talking -- a cacophony, if you will, of people focused on tracking Santa," Hache said, describing rows of long tables, corded phones with headsets and giant screens with Santa-centric info.

Some kids call multiple times. Last year a little boy from New Jersey named Carlos called three times and ended up talking with Hache's wife each time. By 2 a.m. she was doing her best to remind him Santa won't come if Carlos is awake and calling NORAD. Carlos' calls were just a few of the 154,192 NORAD got last year in the span of 23 hours. Volunteers also received 2,841 emails.

For the phone call-averse, NORAD has a Santa-tracking app for Android and iOS, and last year folks could check in with the command center via Facebook Live, too. NORAD's website, which goes live Dec. 1, offers a countdown, as well as Christmas games and music in case you're anxious for the big night. Tracking is also available through search engine Bing and Microsoft's Cortana.

If you've got OnStar, you can ask that service for Santa's location on the 24th as well. OnStar got 4,567 requests for updates last year from folks in their cars.

And this is the first year that, if you've got an Amazon device, you can ask Alexa where Santa is.

Tech the halls

NORAD takes Santa seriously. Documentation describes his sleigh as a "versatile, all-weather, multipurpose, vertical short-takeoff and landing vehicle." It weighs about 80,000 gumdrops at takeoff (for reference, that's about 1,940 pounds, given the average 11-gram gumdrop) and its emissions are classified.

But what does Kris Kringle think about being so closely watched? Does he have privacy concerns? Is he worried about his data? We weren't able to get a comment from Claus, but Chouinard assured us that Santa doesn't mind. After all, Chouinard added, he waves to the fighter jet pilots every year.

Maybe Santa signed NORAD's terms of service without reading them. At any rate, he's probably used to the attention. And when Christmas Eve rolls around again, Santa will be watching you, and NORAD will be watching Santa.

The Smartest Stuff: Innovators are thinking up new ways to make you, and the things around you, smarter.

Special Reports: CNET's in-depth features in one place.