Economy

Stormy times ahead for IBM-owned Weather Channel app

Stormy times ahead for IBM-owned Weather Channel app

Today, the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against the makers of the hugely popular Weather Channel app for "covertly mining the private data of users and selling the information to third parties, including advertisers". The suit doesn't allege personally identifiable information was sold.

The lawsuit claims the Weather Channel mobile app, for both Android and iOS, uses deceptive tactics to trick users into granting access to geolocation information.

Poor data privacy standards seem to be the norm for many tech companies nowadays, but it seems even older institutions - like The Weather Channel (TWC) - aren't immune to similar problems.

"If a company were really transparent, that first screen [in the Weather Channel app] would tell the user that their location data was being used for far more than weather", he said. Artificial intelligence systems like Watson demand huge data sets to train their algorithms on. Specifically, the information has reportedly been given to IBM (the company that owns TWC) affiliates for advertising and market research purposes.

In a November speech at an event with top European Union officials, Rometty said "irresponsible handling" of user data by "dominant consumer-facing platform companies" has created a "trust crisis".

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Los Angeles attorney Michael Feuer says that while 80 percent of Weather Channel app users agreed to share their location data, this was done in the expectation that this data would be used for the purposes of delivering localized weather forecasts. Instead, according to the complaint, the app sells the data for ad-targeting purposes.

The lawsuit seeks the statutory penalty under California's Unfair Competition Law, up to $2,500 per violation, or twice that when the victim is disabled or a senior citizen.

Location tracking is a particularly contested area when it comes to data-sharing: Businesses value the ability to use geographic information to cater relevant messages to nearby consumers - an increasingly pressing issue in the industry, as marketing personalization often comes up short - but collection practices can be especially invasive in regulators' eyes and come off as creepy to users. The app is said to have 45 million monthly users; it's not yet clear how many reside in California.

The prosecutors in their petition have argued that the app, which is owned by IBM, unfairly manipulated the innocent app users into tracking their location in lieu of giving them personalised weather updates and alerts.

Feuer said the company stopped sharing information with hedge funds following the story last month by The Times that highlighted the practice.