The Los Angeles City Attorney’s office issued a cloudy forecast with the possibility of civil penalties for the popular Weather Channel app Friday, claiming it repeatedly violated the privacy of consumers.
In a civil lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, city prosecutors allege that The Weather Channel app led users to believe that it would use location data to provide them with “personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts” but instead transmitted that data to third parties.
The 15-page suit seeks to stop TWC Product and Technology LLC, a subsidiary of IBM, from using consumers' information and seeks civil penalties up to $2,500 for each violation by the company. Prosecutors allege that the firm profited from that data for purposes entirely unrelated to weather or the app.
The Weather Channel’s TV operations are a separate entity from The Weather Channel app and its website, weather.com.
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The New York Times first reported that at least 75 companies collected location data from customers but only partially disclosed how that information would be shared and used. In one instance, the paper found one person’s whereabouts were logged more than 14,000 times in a single day.
The Weather Channel app is billed as the “world’s most downloaded weather app,” with approximately 45 million monthly users. By the company’s own account, TWC collects “more than one billion pieces of location data per week."
When reached for comment on the lawsuit, a spokesperson for IBM said the company planned to fight the lawsuit.
"The Weather Company has always been transparent with use of location data; the disclosures are fully appropriate, and we will defend them vigorously," the spokesperson said in an email.
The movements help “to determine users’ daily habits, consumer preferences, and even their identities,” valuable data that serves as the basis of an approximately $21 billion location-targeted advertising industry, the suit says.
The app transferred users’ geolocation data to at least a dozen third-party websites over the past 19 months. To monetize the trove of data, TWC and its affiliates developed an “audience-derived location targeting platform” called “JOURNEYfx”
Through JOURNEYfx, TWC and its affiliates could analyze that data to ascertain a slew of personal information about users — to “understand rituals, consumers’ patterns of behavior, and the best time to market in order to influence that behavior.”
But most consumers were oblivious to the snooping, prosecutors allege.
“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 suit said.
“The Privacy Settings section vaguely states that geolocation data may be used for 'geographically relevant ads and content' and may be shared with 'partners' for 'the provision of services such as business operations, advertising solutions or promotions.'”
Andrew Blankstein is an investigative reporter for NBC News. He covers the Western United States, specializing in crime, courts and homeland security.