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By Bruce Sussman
Mon | Jan 7, 2019 | 10:12 AM PST

As a former Chief Meteorologist in local television news, I still remember a rainy Portland afternoon when our weather team was looking at research on what viewers wanted from our broadcasts.

This was about 15  years ago.

Our weather consultant had a dire message:

"Your biggest competition in the future won't be from the weather teams across town. Your biggest competition for eyeballs will be the phone everyone carries with them."

He held up his phone and flipped it open. There it was: a tiny screen all lit up. And after a minute or so of punching buttons, he had navigated to a screen showing rain clouds.

At that time, his prediction seemed out of touch with what was a slow user experience, even though it was "cool" that you could do such a thing.

Then the iPhone came out and Android phones followed.

His prediction came true. Now, instead of waiting for a news broadcast, we just open a mobile app to get free weather information on demand. 

Weather Channel privacy lawsuit details 

Now a lawsuit just filed against The Weather Channel (TWC) says the free forecasts the app's 45 million users enjoy are not actually free. Instead, we are paying for the forecasts by revealing our life's every move.

That errand you only do on Tuesday, the stop at Starbucks three times a week, and your daily trips to work, your child's school, and home again. 

"According to TWC, it collects more than one billion pieces of location data per week, thus tracking users’ personal data with 'unmatched accuracy and precision.' TWC contends that it possesses the 'world’s largest continuous set of 1st party place data [i.e., geolocation data].' Through this massive data-collection scheme, TWC is able to track users’ precise daily movements and analyze where they choose to spend their time throughout the day and night."

That information about your 24/7 movements gets transferred to IBM, which owns The Weather Channel, and to a slew of data companies that will repackage and sell "you" and your moves to businesses willing to pay for your data.

But wait a minute, don't we already know these apps track us and that's kind of the way it goes?

That's where the lawsuit says The Weather Channel has misled its users. The sticking point is right here on this screen as you setup your Weather Channel app:

weather-channel-app-trackingThe Weather Channel app asks your permission to track you, but do you see the reason? "You'll get personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts." That is all it says, with no option to look at a privacy statement.

The lawsuit puts it like this:

"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."

And the lawsuit, which was filed by the City of Los Angeles, claims The Weather Channel app transferred users’ geolocation data to at least a dozen third-party websites over the past 19 months.

Your privacy is up for sale

Apple CEO Tim Cook said publicly in 2018 that "billions" are made everyday in the process of buying and selling this type of personal data. "Our own information is being weaponized against us with military efficiency," Cook said.

And when I interviewed the CEO of The Privacy Professor at a SecureWorld conference, Rebecca Herold told me how much privacy we're giving up is a huge question mark right now.

We love smart, Internet of Things (IoT) devices and their apps, and they love us, she says:

"What's happening with all the information these IoT devices are collecting on us? Where does the information go at first? And then once its in a database somewhere, where does it go from there and who is it shared with. No one really knows."

Companies want to buy our information

Demand by companies for a competitive advantage drives this hunger and these profits from our personal information. Just think about weather and where you live, for example. Marketing blog AdExchanger put it like this:

Knowing who lives along a hurricane’s path, for example, is an interesting data point to Lowe’s or The Home Depot, which can target those people with messaging about storm windows, while an over-the-counter pharma brand could target people based on air quality or high pollen counts.

“It all ties back to the idea of location data intelligence,” said Shashi Seth, chief product officer at location-based mobile ad network xAd, which acquired WeatherBug. “It’s about adding other layers of data in order to understand and impact user behavior.”

What we're talking about here is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to privacy and what is reasonable. Perhaps that's why Bill Gates tweeted a rare New Year's resolution about privacy and cybersecurity.

You can read The Weather Channel app privacy lawsuit for yourself.

And get set for follow-up stories because IBM plans to fight back.

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

The lawyers suing IBM and The Weather Channel had better be careful, though.

There's a good chance Big Data knows exactly where they are, both day and night.

Tags: Big Data, Privacy,