California is once again at the center of the national debate over data privacy. Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer has filed a lawsuit against TWC Product and Technology, an IBM subsidiary and operator of the Weather Channel smartphone app, for “covertly mining the private data of users and selling the information to third parties, including advertisers.”
The Weather Channel app, branded through its namesake cable television channel, is a mobile phone application that provides users with real-time weather information and forecasts. It was the most downloaded weather application from 2014 to 2017.
The lawsuit claims 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 alleges TWC profited from that data, monetizing it for purposes entirely unrelated to weather. “In fact, unbeknownst to its users, TWC’s core business is amassing and profiting from user location data. … It has been reported that TWC considers itself ‘a location data company powered by weather,’” the lawsuit says, claiming the app can trace “users’ second-by-second movements with startling precision.”
This geolocation information, which can be analyzed to determine users’ daily habits and consumer preferences, is the cornerstone of the approximately $21 billion location-targeted advertising industry.
The complaint claims TWC led users to believe their location data would only be used to provide them with “personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts.” Instead, the app allegedly sends information to IBM affiliates and other third parties for advertising and commercial purposes entirely unrelated to the weather.
Users’ location data could be used to determine users’ daily habits, consumer preferences, and identities. This information, it is alleged, facilitated targeted advertisements by at least a dozen third-party websites during the past 19 months. The data was also bought and used by hedge funds to analyze consumer behavior.
TWC collects more than one billion pieces of location data per week based on user locations, the lawsuit claims. It has boasted that it possesses the “world’s largest continuous set of [geolocation data].”
The lawsuit seeks damages under the California Business and Professions Code’s Unfair Competition Law. It prohibits “unfair competition,” broadly defined as including “any unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice and unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising.” TWC is covered by the law because its app is available for download and use throughout California and, specifically, the County of Los Angeles.
The lawsuit seeks an injunction prohibiting TWC from “unfair and fraudulent business activities, including deceptively collecting and selling personal data” and civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation.
The court case comes at an interesting time for both data privacy advocates and companies that broker in consumer data.
“This case goes to the core of one of today’s most fundamental issues,” Feuer said. "How do we maintain our privacy in the digital age? We believe Americans must have the facts before giving away our most personal information."
Amid high-profile misuses of user data, notably by Facebook during the 2016 election, there is an escalating push for national consumer data protections and legislation.
Beyond what Congress might do, California, home to many of the world’s top tech companies, is the first state to enact a law mirroring the formidable data protection and privacy standards of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.
Effective Jan. 1, 2020, the California law gives customers the right to demand specific data be deleted from an online enterprise’s databases. Consumers will also have the right to request that an applicable business disclose the categories of information it collects and the identity of third parties to whom it was sold or disclosed.
The law applies to for-profit entities with $24 million in annual revenue that hold the personal data of 50,000 people or that nets at least half of their revenue in the sale of personal data. Failure to address a violation of the law within 30 days could lead to a $7,500 fine per violation, which could be defined as for record or customer file.
TWC, perhaps catching a break as that tough new law remains a year away, is showing little concern about the accusations. In fact, it has doubled down on data collection efforts.
“The Weather Company has always been transparent with use of location data; the disclosures are fully appropriate, and we will defend them vigorously," is the official IBM/TWC response to the lawsuit.
Since TWC was acquired by IBM in 2015, the deal has been positioned as a mutually beneficial mechanism for collecting and connecting weather and location data. This information is valuable because it can be packaged in actionable ways to assist retailers and other business interests (including hedge funds and advertising/marketing firms) that want to assess, or predict, weather-influenced spending patterns, consumer behaviors, and supply chain needs.
TWC, despite California’s claims of obfuscation, has very openly touted JOURNEYfx, an “audience-derived location targeting platform” for collecting and analyzing geolocation data.
A JOURNEYfx case study details one application of the technology: using data collected from the Weather Channel app to target McDonald’s McCafé coffee offerings toward millennials who—according to that geolocation data—frequented “breakfast-style diners.” Specifically, it was able to effectively target women between 18-49 years old.
As California’s lawsuit was gaining media coverage, IBM was also doubling down on its weather-prediction ventures this week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. With TWC it “unveiled a powerful new global weather forecasting system that will provide the most accurate local weather forecasts ever seen worldwide.”
The new “Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System” was touted as the first hourly updating commercial weather system able to predict something as geographically small as thunderstorms globally.
Predictions from the new system will be made available globally later in 2019, “helping airlines to better minimize disruption from turbulence; insurers to better prepare for storm recovery operations; utility companies to better position repair crews for outages; farmers to better anticipate and prepare for dramatic shifts in weather and more.”