Under the tree this Christmas, my son and I got some pretty awesome fishing lures. We can’t wait to get out on the lake this summer to try and land some prize lunker. The only problem is, summer seems pretty far away right now.
Before we head out on the lake, I always check the Weather Channel app on my phone. It tells me the temperature and whether I’ll need a sweatshirt. It’s got radar, so I can see how far off a rain shower is. It tells me how strong the wind is and what direction it’s coming from, so I can decide where to point the boat.
And I’m not alone. The app has been downloaded over 100 million times and has 45 million active users each month. I love the app because it gives me all the information I need to go fishing – except where I can actually find the fish. I didn’t know, however, that I was giving the app information, too.
Earlier this month, the City of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against the Weather Company, the business that runs the Weather Channel app. The suit accuses the company, which is owned by IBM, of deceptively collecting, sharing and profiting from the location information of millions of American consumers.
LA claims that the app unfairly manipulated users into agreeing to location tracking by implying that the information would be used to provide weather reports based on the user’s location. While that’s true, the lawsuit alleges that the Weather Company also used the data for non-weather related commercial purposes, such as targeted marketing and analysis for hedge funds.
The City asserts that what precipitated the lawsuit was the app prompting users to enable location tracking services, however, the notice only partly disclosed how their data would be shared and used. The lawsuit maintains that such incomplete messages are “fraudulent and deceptive” and violate California’s Unfair Competition Law.
Michael N. Feuer, the Los Angeles city attorney, said, “If the price of getting a weather report is going to be the sacrifice of your most personal information about where you spend your time day and night, you sure as heck ought to be told clearly in advance.” He went on to say that the problem isn’t unique to California and that he hopes the City’s lawsuit “will be the catalyst for other action — either litigation or legislative activity — to protect consumers’ ability to assure their private information remains just that, unless they speak clearly in advance.”
Feuer is seeking civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation of the Unfair Competition Law. While the number of violations and amount of the penalties are decided by a judge, based on the popularity of the app and the number of residents of California, the Weather Company could be facing millions of dollars of penalties if LA prevails.
Saswato Das, a spokesman for IBM, responded by saying, “The Weather Company has always been transparent with use of location data; the disclosures are fully appropriate, and we will defend them vigorously.”
If Los Angeles’ allegations are true, it’s disappointing that the Weather Channel app was fishing for my data. If they did collect data, I bet they stored it in the cloud.