IBM-owned company accused of tricking app users with false disclosures.
The IBM-owned Weather Channel app has been transmitting its users’ precise geolocation data to advertisers and other third parties despite telling users that their location data was needed only for providing local weather data, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by California government officials.
When asking users for permission to turn on location tracking, the iOS and Android app does not “give users any reason to believe that their location data will be used for anything other than personalized local weather data, alerts, and forecasts,” the lawsuit said.
“Unbeknownst to many users, the Weather Channel App has tracked users’ detailed geolocation data for years, analyzing and/or transferring that data to third parties for a variety of commercial and advertising purposes, including for targeted advertisements based on locations users frequent, and for hedge funds interested in analyzing consumer behavior,” the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit was filed by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who is representing the people of the state of California. The complaint, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks civil penalties and an injunction barring the Weather Channel “from engaging in these prohibited business practices,” which allegedly violate California’s Unfair Competition Law. (The New York Times posted a copy of the complaint here.)
Civil penalties and an injunction are needed “to punish TWC [The Weather Company] for its egregious conduct and to deter TWC from engaging in the same or similar conduct in the future,” the lawsuit said.
“Intrusive tool to mine private data”
The Weather Channel app is used by 45 million people a month and was the most downloaded weather app from 2014 to 2017, according to data cited in the complaint.
“Unfortunately, TWC takes advantage of its app’s widespread popularity by using it as an intrusive tool to mine users’ private geolocation data, which TWC then sends 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,” the complaint said.
That’s in contrast to what app users are told when asked for permission to turn on location tracking. “The app misleadingly suggests that such data will be used only to provide users with ‘personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts,'” the complaint said.
The app maker “intentionally obscures this information 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 said. The complaint quotes a TWC general manager as saying, “If a consumer is using your product and says, ‘Hey wait a minute, why do they want to know where I am?’… you are going to have some problems.”
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.
When contacted by Ars, IBM said, “The Weather Company has always been transparent with use of location data; the disclosures are fully appropriate, and we will defend them vigorously.” IBM said it would provide no other response to the lawsuit at this time.
How data was shared
About 80 percent of Weather Channel app users grant access to their geolocation data, and their movements are tracked “in minute detail,” the complaint said.
The complaint continued:
Indeed, TWC executives state that they track consumers’ movements “throughout the day, week and year” with “uber-precise” geolocation monitoring—collecting data that is “accurate down to 5 decimal places.” According to TWC, it collects more than one billion pieces of location data per week, thus tracking users’ personal data with “unmatched accuracy and precision.” TWC contends that it possesses the “world’s largest continuous set of 1st party place data [i.e., geolocation data].” Through this massive data-collection scheme, TWC is able to track users’ precise daily movements and analyze where they choose to spend their time throughout the day and night.
The company transmits the data to third parties, including advertising and marketing companies, the complaint said. “According to researchers, the Weather Channel App transferred users’ geolocation data to at least a dozen third-party websites over the past 19 months,” the complaint said.
TWC and its affiliates use a system to understand “rituals” and “consumers’ patterns of behavior” in order to “monetize this trove of personal geolocation data,” the complaint said.
In one case, users’ location data was used “to target McDonald’s McCafé coffee offerings toward millennials who—according to that geolocation data—frequented ‘breakfast-style diners,'” the complaint said.
Data usage went beyond advertising. “Until recently, TWC and/or its affiliates maintained a program through which they analyzed Weather Channel App users’ geolocation data for hedge funds interested in consumer behavior,” the complaint said.