Stop Using Third-Party Weather Apps

Time and time again, weather apps—including The Weather Channel, Accuweather, and WeatherBug—have shown that they share your location data.

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Jan 4 2019, 7:08pm

Image: Shutterstock

One of the first things I used to do every morning was wake up, roll over, grab my phone, and open up a weather app. I suspect lots of people do the same. Make sure you’re opening an app that isn’t spying on you.

Third-party weather apps are perhaps the most dangerous app you can install on your phone. They are relatively easy to make, which means there are a lot of them (most pull their information from one of just a couple sources worldwide), people use them every day, and, most importantly, they’re one of just a few apps that has a good reason to ask you for your location (you want to know what the weather is where you’re currently located, don’t you?)

But time and time again, weather apps have been shown to ask for smartphone permissions that they don’t need and shouldn’t have. Many of them then sell that data to advertisers and other data brokers. This happens both among the weather apps that most people haven’t heard of and among some of the most popular and well-known apps out there.

Accuweather was caught in 2017 selling user location data to third parties even when users had location data turned off. Late last year, the New York Times found that both the WeatherBug app and the Weather Channel app were sending precise location data to third parties. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that a popular app on the Google Play Store called “Weather Forecast—World Weather Accurate Radar” collects location data, email address, and phone IMEI identification numbers, while also attempting to secretly subscribe users to paid virtual reality platforms.

Thursday, the city of Los Angeles sued The Weather Channel for its alleged inappropriate use of location data—the lawsuit claims that the Weather Channel “takes advantage of its app’s widespread popularity by using it as an intrusive tool to mine users’ private geolocation data, which [the Weather Channel] then sends to IBM affiliates and other third parties for advertising and other commercial purposes entirely unrelated to either weather or the Weather Channel App’s services.”

The safest thing to do here, then, is to stop using third-party weather apps altogether. There are surely some good, trustworthy third-party weather apps out there, but the whole well has been poisoned by others in the industry.

Use Google’s built-in weather information on Android, and use the built-in Weather app on iOS (which uses data from the Weather Channel anyway.) Google uses your location in a variety of ways as well, but if you’re on Android, well, there’s not much you can do to prevent the company from having it. Apple’s first party apps, meanwhile, have shown themselves to be generally trustworthy with private data thus far (though Apple is complicit in an economic model that has allowed “free” apps that surreptitiously sell your data to flourish on the App Store.)

Or, better yet, use no weather app at all, and check the weather manually on a browser or on a separate device altogether. The whole weather app industry has shown itself to not be trustworthy enough to use.

Update: A few people have asked about the popular Dark Sky weather app, which is well-reviewed and, unlike many other weather apps, costs money to buy. I haven't used the app but have heard good things—it's also one of the only apps that has extensively addressed how it uses your location data. In a blog posted in 2017, Dark Sky cofounder Adam Grossman unequivocally stated that the company doesn't share location data: "We don’t now — and never will — share your location data with 3rd party advertisers or data monetization companies," he wrote. Grossman also addressed the fact that many other weather apps have been untrustworthy, and noted that because his app costs money, it can afford to exist without selling data. I can't advise you on whether or not you should use Dark Sky, but it's heartening to see the issue addressed publicly and in a straightforward manner.