LA accuses Weather Channel app of deceptive data collection

The city of Los Angeles is accusing The Weather Channel app of improperly mining detailed data from users about their daily habits and handing the information over to advertisers and hedge funds.

In a lawsuit filed Friday, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer accused the company that operates the app — TWC Product and Technology, a subsidiary of IBM — of misleading users about what it does with their precise geolocation data.

"For years, TWC has deceptively used its Weather Channel App to amass its users’ private, personal geolocation data — tracking minute details about its users’ locations throughout the day and night, all the while leading users to believe that their data will only be used to provide them with ‘personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts,’ ” Feuer writes in the lawsuit.

“TWC has then profited from that data, using it and monetizing it for purposes entirely unrelated to weather or the Weather Channel App,” the complaint continues.

The lawsuit was first reported by The New York Times.

“The Weather Company has always been transparent with use of location data; the disclosures are fully appropriate, and we will defend them vigorously,” an IBM spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.

The lawsuit comes a month after a Times investigation into mobile apps’ location tracking practices reported that The Weather Channel app did not explicitly disclose that it was giving location data to third parties — including IBM and its affiliates — for targeted advertising and marketing research.

According to the Times, the app later updated its privacy policy to clarify that it uses location data to “provide you with location-based services (such as severe weather alerts and other weather information through our mobile applications), provide advertisements that are relevant to your geographic location, and conduct analytics to improve the Services.”

Concerns about data collection have mounted in the past year following revelations about Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which a political consulting firm improperly obtained data on millions of users. And as Congress slowly prepares to draw up the country’s first consumer privacy legislation, Feuer’s lawsuit is the latest example of state and local officials charging ahead with their own data protection efforts.

Last summer, California passed the first state data protection law, which imposes tough measures to provide more transparency and user control in data collection. And last month, the attorney general for Washington, D.C., filed a lawsuit against Facebook over the Cambridge Analytica incident, the first U.S. government enforcement action against the social network in response to the scandal.

Feuer’s lawsuit asks the court to impose penalties of up to $2,500 for every alleged violation of California’s competition laws.

“If the cost of a weather forecast will be the sacrifice of deeply private information — like precisely where we are, day and night — it must be clear, in advance,” Feuer said in a statement. “But we allege TWC elevates corporate profits over users’ privacy, misleading them into allowing their movements to be tracked, 24/7. We’re acting to stop this alleged deceit.

“This case goes to the core of one of today’s most fundamental issues,” he added. “How do we maintain our privacy in the digital age? We believe Americans must have the facts before giving away our most personal information.”

— Updated 2:03 p.m.