L.A. sues Weather Channel, IBM over location tracking

(Bloomberg) --The city of Los Angeles is suing International Business Machines Corp.’s Weather Channel unit, accusing the company of misleading consumers about how their location data was being used.

In a complaint filed Thursday in California state court, the city alleges IBM used detailed location data from users for targeted advertising and to identify consumer trends that might be useful to hedge funds, while at the same time telling consumers their location would only be used to localize weather forecasts. The suit doesn’t allege personally identifiable information was sold.

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bad weather

“Unbeknownst to many users, the Weather Channel App has tracked users’ detailed geolocation data for years,” the complaint alleges, calling the Weather Channel’s actions “unfair and fraudulent.” The complaint also says the Weather Channel profited from the data, “using it and monetizing it for purposes entirely unrelated to weather or the Weather Channel App.”

The lawsuit pulls IBM into the broader conversation about how tech companies use consumer data that has roiled the industry in the past two years and prompted intense questions from politicians, users and regulators. 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.

IBM bought the Weather Channel’s digital assets, including its app and website, in 2015 to help build a pipeline of data it could feed into its Watson artificial intelligence system, John Kelly, who heads IBM’s cognitive solutions business, said at the time. Artificial intelligence systems like Watson demand huge data sets to train their algorithms on.

“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.

IBM Chief Executive Officer Ginni Rometty has used the attention around data privacy to try and differentiate IBM from other tech companies, saying the dominant consumer tech platforms should face more scrutiny from regulators.

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.”