Published: Sat, January 05, 2019
Markets | By Otis Pena

Stormy times ahead for IBM-owned Weather Channel app

Stormy times ahead for IBM-owned Weather Channel app

A new lawsuit filed by the city of Los Angeles alleges the Weather Channel misled millions of users into allowing it to access their personal location data, then profiting off it in the process by selling it to third parties.

The suit alleges that The Weather Company is actually motivated by sending this data to "IBM affiliates and other third parties for advertising and other commercial purposes entirely unrelated to either weather or the Weather Channel App's services".

"TWC intentionally obscures this information" in a 10,000-word privacy policy "because it recognizes that many users would not permit the Weather Channel App to track their geolocation if they knew the true uses of that data", the complaint goes on to say.

IBM says there has always been transparency about use of location data and it will be vigorously defended.

Mobile apps and high-tech companies like Google and Facebook have also faced scrutiny in the past year for similar reasons - tracking personal data of its users, according to the report. IBM has actively worked to paint itself as having better data practices than consumer platforms like Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter.

The Weather Channel app's business model relies on maximizing the amount of geolocation data it collects, and TWC executives have said that this data is one of the main reasons that IBM bought the company, according to the lawsuit. Artificial intelligence systems like Watson demand huge data sets to train their algorithms on.

The lawsuit, filed on Thursday, concerns the mobile app's location-tracking feature, which you can turn on to receive localized weather reports.

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Hundreds of popular apps are collecting location data that they claim is anonymous, but further analysis shows it can be easily linked to specific users.

Feuer and the city of LA are now seeking a court injunction that would prohibit TWC from continuing its practice of sharing user location data with partners, but also civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation.

The Weather Channel's mobile app isn't the only product engaging in the shady data collection practices, Feuer said during a press conference on Friday.

According to the filing, the city claims that the app never disclosed that it would use personal information for monetization and for other purposes other than related to weather alerts or forecasts.

Feuer made clear that many companies engage in similar downplayed location data gathering. "This app seems to be benign; how many of you would suspect that to get a weather app, we would be tracked 24/7?"

"The issue of our privacy in the digital age is one of the most fundamental issues we confront today", he said.

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