Los Angeles sues IBM's Weather Company over alleged mishandling of app data

The Weather Channel app's icon on an iPhone screen

The Weather Channel app's icon on an iPhone screen

IBM Corp. issued a statement Friday in response to a lawsuit by the Los Angeles city attorney claiming app users are misled to think the data is only used for personalized weather information but it is actually sold to third parties. The suit doesn't allege personally identifiable information was sold. And it says that TWC intentionally hides the fact that it shares location data in its lengthy privacy policy because the company recognizes many users would object to such data sharing if they knew of it.

Although the app uses The Weather Channel's name, the product itself is run by a subsidiary under IBM, which bought The Weather Company in 2016.

"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. IBM has actively worked to paint itself as having better data practices than consumer platforms like Alphabet Inc.'s Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

The Weather Channel is owned by a company other than IBM, which purchased the app and other Weather Channel digital assets for $2 billion in 2015, according to the AP report. Artificial intelligence systems like Watson demand huge data sets to train their algorithms on. The Weather Channel seen on TV was not acquired by IBM and is owned by a different company.

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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"When seeking consent for geolocation tracking, the app does not reference or link to any other sections of the app for more information on that topic, or 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.

The Weather Company, which operates the app, vigorously denied the allegations. The EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has a lot to say about companies that take people's personal data for one objective but use it for another, and fines stretch as high as 4% of global revenue. The Weather Channel app claims to be "the world's most downloaded weather app" with around 45 million monthly active users.

Two years ago, AccuWeather was caught sending user location data, even when location sharing was off, a practice it continued even after being publicly exposed.

LA City Attorney Michael Feuer asked the superior court to enjoin the deceptive and unfair business practices, and fine the company $2,500 for each violation, doubled if committed against elderly or disabled people.

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