The Los Angeles city attorney is suing IBM-owned The Weather Company, alleging its app covertly profited from mining user data without adequately disclosing its data sharing practices.

The lawsuit, filed on Friday, alleges the app deceived users into sharing their whereabouts in exchange for “personalised local weather data, alerts and forecasts”.

The documents allege The Weather Company, acquired by IBM in 2015, doesn’t disclose to users that their geolocation data is transmitted to IBM affiliates and other third parties, nor that the data will be used for “a variety of commercial and advertising purposes, including for targeted advertisements based on locations users frequent, and for hedge funds interested in analysing consumer behaviour”.

The Weather Channel App

The lawsuit claims the the sharing practices are hidden in a 10,000-word privacy policy and the initial pop-up, pictured above, prompting users to share their location, gives no indication their geolocation data would be shared for commercial purposes.  

“If the cost of getting a weather forecast means sacrificing some of your most personal data, like where you spend your time 24/7, then that ought to be made extremely clear in advance to users of the app,” LA city attorney Mike Feuer said.

IBM maintains it has always been transparent about its handling of user data, with a spokesperson telling 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.”

Feuer noted the app isn’t alone in its data collection practices but said it targeted the seemingly benign Weather Channel based on the amount of data it collects across all demographics.

The lawsuit is seeking the statutory penalty under California’s Unfair Competition Law, of up to $US2,500 per violation and an injunction to stop the practice continuing.

The case is an example of the ever-increasing scrutiny of data collection practices in the digital age, with lawmakers and advocates pushing for more transparent explanations of how data is collected and used.

Closer to home, the ACCC has argued that the length and complexity of privacy policies exacerbate the “information asymmetry between digital platforms and consumers.”  

“Digital platforms also tend to understate to consumers the extent of their data collection practices while overstating the level of consumer control over their personal user data,” the ACCC found in its digital platform inquiry.

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