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Lawsuit: Weather Channel illegally shared user location data with advertisers | Ars Technica


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The IBM-owned Weather Channel app has been transmitting its users' precise geolocation data to advertisers and other third parties despite telling users that their location data was needed only for providing local weather data, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday by California government officials.

When asking users for permission to turn on location tracking, the iOS and Android app does not "give users any reason to believe that their location data will be used for anything other than personalized local weather data, alerts, and forecasts," the lawsuit said.

"Unbeknownst to many users, the Weather Channel App has tracked users' detailed geolocation data for years, analyzing and/or transferring that data to third parties for a variety of commercial and advertising purposes, including for targeted advertisements based on locations users frequent, and for hedge funds interested in analyzing consumer behavior," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit was filed by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who is representing the people of the state of California. The complaint, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks civil penalties and an injunction barring the Weather Channel "from engaging in these prohibited business practices," which allegedly violate California's Unfair Competition Law. (The New York Times posted a copy of the complaint here.)

Civil penalties and an injunction are needed "to punish TWC [The Weather Company] for its egregious conduct and to deter TWC from engaging in the same or similar conduct in the future," the lawsuit said.

“Intrusive tool to mine private data”

The Weather Channel app is used by 45 million people a month and was the most downloaded weather app from 2014 to 2017, according to data cited in the complaint.

"Unfortunately, TWC takes advantage of its app's widespread popularity by using it as an intrusive tool to mine users' private geolocation data, which TWC 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 complaint said.

That's in contrast to what app users are told when asked for permission to turn on location tracking. "The app misleadingly suggests that such data will be used only to provide users with 'personalized local weather data, alerts and forecasts,'" the complaint said.

Users have to comb through the "Privacy Settings" and "Privacy Policy" sections of the app to find out that their geolocation data may be tracked for other purposes, the complaint said. But even these "sections of the app are less than forthcoming regarding TWC's uses of geolocation data," with the advertising usage described vaguely and "scattered through various sections of the nearly 10,000-word Privacy Policy," the complaint said.

The app maker "intentionally obscures this information because it recognizes that many users would not permit the Weather Channel App to track their geolocation if they knew the true uses of that data," the complaint said. The complaint quotes a TWC general manager as saying, "If a consumer is using your product and says, 'Hey wait a minute, why do they want to know where I am?'... you are going to have some problems."

The Weather Channel app's business model relies on maximizing the amount of geolocation data it collects, and TWC executives have said that this data is one of the main reasons that IBM bought the company, according to the lawsuit.

When contacted by Ars, IBM said, "The Weather Company has always been transparent with use of location data; the disclosures are fully appropriate, and we will defend them vigorously." IBM said it would provide no other response to the lawsuit at this time.

How data was shared

About 80 percent of Weather Channel app users grant access to their geolocation data, and their movements are tracked "in minute detail," the complaint said.

The complaint continued:

Indeed, TWC executives state that they track consumers' movements "throughout the day, week and year" with "uber-precise" geolocation monitoring—collecting data that is "accurate down to 5 decimal places." 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.

The company transmits the data to third parties, including advertising and marketing companies, the complaint said. "According to researchers, the Weather Channel App transferred users' geolocation data to at least a dozen third-party websites over the past 19 months," the complaint said.

TWC and its affiliates use a system to understand "rituals" and "consumers' patterns of behavior" in order to "monetize this trove of personal geolocation data," the complaint said.

In one case, users' location data was used "to target McDonald's McCafé coffee offerings toward millennials who—according to that geolocation data—frequented 'breakfast-style diners,'" the complaint said.

Data usage went beyond advertising. "Until recently, TWC and/or its affiliates maintained a program through which they analyzed Weather Channel App users' geolocation data for hedge funds interested in consumer behavior," the complaint said.

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13 days ago
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4 Comments and 11 Shares
The good news is that if the number of work and friend relationships you have exceeds your willingness to do the bare minimum to keep up with everyone's life events and stuff, one way or another that problem eventually solves itself.
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4 public comments
15 days ago
This might be the most relatable xkcd ever.
Moses Lake, WA
15 days ago
I feel personally attacked by this comic.
15 days ago
The good news is that if the number of work and friend relationships you have exceeds your willingness to do the bare minimum to keep up with everyone's life events and stuff, one way or another that problem eventually solves itself.
15 days ago
The good news is that if the number of work and friend relationships you have exceeds your willingness to do the bare minimum to keep up with everyone's life events and stuff, one way or another that problem eventually solves itself.



From time to time during the past half century or so, I've heard of a food product called seitan.  Because the name sounds Japanese and it was associated with a natural food store in Cambridge, Massachusetts that I frequented called Erewhon (see here for the 1872 satirical Utopian novel by Samuel Butler whence it got its name) that was founded by Japanese macrobiotic advocates (see below for a bit more detail), I always assumed that it was both a Japanese word and a Japanese product.  As we shall find later in this post, I was (sort of) mistaken on both counts.

Why am I writing about seitan now?  Well, in the past, I've only rarely eaten small amounts of seitan.  Two days ago, though, I ate an entire dish with lots of chunks of seitan (masquerading as chicken or something).  That evening and for the next day, I experienced the most exuberant explosion of flatulence that I've ever had in my life.  Much more effective than beans.  Loud and foul.

So I decided, once and for all, to determine:  what is this stuff?

I started asking around.  Here's the first response I received:

Seitan gives me gas too. I think it is unnatural and wrong.

Hmmm.  That was certainly a straightforward rejoinder!  It prompted me to look up the rudiments of seitan on the web, after which I replied:

People think it's virtuous because it's vegetarian, BUT you're right to say it's unnatural.  You know how they make it?  Simply wash wash wash away all the starch from wheat until all that's left is blobs of gluten!!!  Gluten is what so many people need to avoid for various reasons.

Martindale's* is famous for its non-glutinous food.  Customers come from near and far to purchase gluten free food there.

[*Near my home and founded in 1860, Martindale’s is known as the first health food store in the United States.]

So some folks avoid gluten like the plague and others consume pure gluten (seitan).

As I said above, I've always assumed that "seitan"  was a Japanese word.  It sounds very Japanese to me.  Turns out that George Ohsawa (October 18, 1893 – April 23, 1966), born Yukikazu Sakurazawa 桜沢 如一, who was the founder of the Macrobiotic diet and philosophy, invented that name.  I wonder on what basis he did so.

From Molly Des Jardin:


This is really interesting. Thanks for sending it! As a vegan who has lived several years in Japan I never thought it was a Japanese word, if only because the product is simply not available there at all (and the same goes for other vegan "protein" products like the Indonesian tempeh, TVP, etc., aside from tofu and natto of course). I was surprised to learn that the word was coined by this George Ohsawa. I have never encountered so much macrobiotic fervor as in Japan, so it does make sense if that's its origin. Now you've got me wondering how macrobiotic seitan is.


I'm curious to know how George Ohsawa invented "seitan", what he was thinking when he did so, and what meaning he was trying to convey.

Here's a capsule history of seitan from Wikipedia:

Wheat gluten has been documented in China since the 6th century. It was widely consumed by the Chinese as a substitute for meat, especially among adherents of Buddhism. The oldest reference to wheat gluten appears in the Qimin Yaoshu*, a Chinese agricultural encyclopedia written by Jia Sixie in 535. The encyclopedia mentions noodles prepared from wheat gluten called bo duo**. Wheat gluten was known as mian jin by the Song dynasty (960–1279). Wheat gluten arrived in the West by the 18th century. De Frumento, an Italian treatise on wheat from 1745, describes the process of washing wheat flour dough in order to extract the gluten. John Imison wrote an English-language definition of wheat gluten in his Elements of Science and Art published in 1803. By the 1830s, Western doctors were recommending wheat gluten in diets for diabetics. In the United States, the Seventh-day Adventists promoted the consumption of wheat gluten beginning in the late 19th century. Sanitarium Foods, a company affiliated with John Harvey Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium, advertised wheat gluten in 1882.

[*VHM:  This is one of my favorite Chinese books.  It is a gold mine of Middle Vernacular Sinitic (MVS).]

[**VHM:  If anyone knows what these two characters are, please tell me.]

From the same source, here are some notes on the etymology of seitan:

The word seitan is of Japanese origin and was coined in 1961 by George Ohsawa, a Japanese advocate of the macrobiotic diet, to refer to a wheat gluten product created by Ohsawa's student Kiyoshi Mokutani. In 1962, wheat gluten was sold as seitan in Japan by Marushima Shoyu K.K. It was imported to the West in 1969 by the American company Erewhon.

Wheat gluten is also called seitan (UK: /ˈstæn/, US: /-tɑːn/;[6] Japanese: セイタン), mianjin (Chinese: 麵筋*), milgogi (Korean: 밀고기), wheat meat, gluten meat, or simply gluten.

[*VHM:  This literally means "wheat tendon".]

I find it fascinating that, to the extent that seitan is known in Japan, it is often referred to as wheat gluten meat (g urutenmīto グルテンミート).  Here's the Japanese Wikipedia article on that subject, with comments for specialists by Nathan Hopson.


Summary: Ohsawa apparently coined the term in English, which means that back home in Japan there are multiple kanji for it, but they aren't used much.
To start off, in Japanese wheat gluten is 麩 (fu), as in お麩 (o-fu). In the dried form in that photo, it's often added to miso soup, for example. 
When written in kanji, seitan is rendered either as 製蛋 ("made of protein") or as 正蛋 ("correct protein").
Interestingly, as a product, seitan is sold here as "gluten meat" (グルテンミート) rather than as seitan.
Perhaps even more fascinating is that the Japanese Wikipedia entry that includes seitan is also for "gluten meat," and while the corresponding English entry is: "Wheat gluten (food)," the French is Seitan.
Each page has an explanation of the etymology of seitan:


Roughly, it says that seitan was named by Ohsawa based on Japanese, but was not originally popular in Japan. When it was later reverse-imported (逆輸入 gyaku yunyū)* to Japan, it was known by its Western name, seitan. Multiple kanji compounds exist for setian (「正蛋」「生蛋」「製蛋」), but it's usually written in katakana — or just called gluten meat, as above.
*逆輸入 = reimportation, a term the Japanese media love to use for "Made-in-Japan" people, products, and ideas that become popular abroad before their greatness is appreciated at home.

In Japan, seitan, initially a rather salty macrobiotic seasoning that gradually evolved into a food, is not well known or widely available, despite the macrobiotic diet's Japanese origins. When used, the terms for this food are rendered in katakana as グルテンミート (Romanized "gurutenmīto," from the English "gluten meat"), or, rarely, セイタン ("seitan"). Outside macrobiotic circles, these terms are virtually unknown in Japan, and they do not typically appear in Japanese dictionaries.*

* I can verify this omission from Japanese dictionaries. Japan Knowledge, which aggregates data from dictionaries including but not limited to デジタル大辞泉 (Daijisen) and 日本国語大辞典 (Nihon kokugo daijiten), has no entry for seitan except in the English-Japanese プログレッシブ英和中辞典 (Progressive Eiwachū jiten), where it's described as a "vegetable-protein-containing meat substitute made from wheat gluten" (小麦グルテンから作られ,植物性たんぱくを含む肉の代用食品 komugi guruten kara tsukurare, shokubutsusei tanpaku o fukumu niku no daiyōhin).

Son étymologie la plus communément admise en fait la combinaison de sei (être, devenir, à base de) et de la première syllabe de tanpaku (protéine). Ainsi, seitan signifie « à base de protéine ».

The OED gives this etymology:

Etymology: < Japanese seitan (apparently a1966 (see note); usually written in katakana; not listed in dictionaries of Japanese), probably < sei- raw, unprocessed, bio- (originally ‘life, birth’; < Middle Chinese) + tan- (in tanpakutanpakushitsu protein; < Middle Chinese), or perhaps < Japanese sei- to be, become ( < Middle Chinese) + tan-.

The word is said to have been coined in the early 1960s by the Japanese founder of macrobiotics, Nyoichi (or Nyoiti) Sakurazawa, known in the West as George (or Georges) Ohsawa (1893–1966).


So, the OED is going with 生蛋, which, from what I can tell, is the least commonly invoked of the three kanji compounds listed by Japanese Wikipedia…


So far, I have not met a single Japanese person who has heard of seitan or who eats it.  Perhaps it's because of the reaction it provokes when eaten that it has not gained a foothold in Japan.

From a colleague who was born and grew up in Japan, but who has lived in America for the last three decades and more, though returning regularly to her homeland:

I understand that this food didn't catch on in Japan at all. (I had never heard of it when I was in Japan. I thought it was an English name.) It became popular in the West, and later it was imported back to Japan under the katakana name, seitan セイタン.  (I guess no one knew then that seitan was Japanese.)  That is the reason that it is very hard to trace it back to its Japanese origin.  I found seitan written in kanji as 正蛋 ("proper protein")、生蛋 ("vital protein")、 製蛋 ("made / manufactured protein") as possible candidates, but again no one is certain.   I also found that seitan is sold under the name gurutenmīto グルテンミート(gluten meat [another example of Wasei eigo 和製英語 {"Japanglish"}?] in Japan).

[VHM:  All translations of Japanese terms in this paragraph are by me.]

My gut instinct is that Ohsawa might have been thinking of seitan 精蛋 ("pure protein") when he coined the name.


Satan waitin' ate in seitan;

Rootin' tootin' shootin' gluten.

[Thanks to Cecilia Segawa Seigle, and Heidi Mair]

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22 days ago
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Amazon reveals private Alexa voice data files

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Alexa’s fall from grace began when an Amazon customer made use of his right to personal data access granted by the new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). His request not only gave him access to his own Amazon search data, but also to around 1,700 Alexa voice files recorded in a stranger’s living room, bedroom, and shower. The vigilant customer informed Amazon of the error, but Amazon ignored his warning and simply deleted the files from their server.

Luckily, the source had saved the files locally and sent them (confidentially of course) to c't's in-house experts for analysis. Based on details such as the people’s names and local weather forecasts recorded in the files, they were quickly able to identify the unfortunate Echo user whose data Amazon had illegally revealed. The victim was shocked when c't told him what had happened, especially considering that Amazon hadn’t bothered to tell him, even though they knew the leak had occurred.

This data privacy disaster occurred because saves Alexa voice recordings indefinitely and because the processes it uses to leverage them have serious security issues. This is the worst case scenario that data security and consumer rights experts have been warning us about. It is impossible to tell whether this really is an isolated incident as Amazon claims.

See also the German version of this news article:


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28 days ago
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14 days ago

The Great War

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I saw Peter Jackson’s WWI movie They Shall Not Grow Old where they restored clips frame-by-frame and colorized them, and then combined those visuals with audio recordings of soldiers talking about the war, and on the surface it was an interesting project that really brought home how young everyone was and how brutal the war was. Being limited to audio interviews meant it had no historical context besides what someone told an interviewer 50-60 years ago. Thanks to a 30 minute short that played after the film, Jackson shared stories of how the movie was made and assembled and after getting more context and information, I felt ultimately it was kind of a big dumb vanity project for Peter Jackson that fell short of the mark.

He set out to make a movie for non-historians to watch, made by non-historians, and that’s an interesting concept and I get that making a big Ken Burns style exhaustive historical film would add a ton of work and become a different beast. But ultimately through the 30min follow-up extras, Jackson makes it clear he chose to cut out any archive film about the navy ships and battles, cut the entire story of the first airplanes in war, and chopped out any war front footage besides that from the fields of Belgium and France.

The moment that crystallized it for me was when he showed his own research photos he took during the colorization process, including a scene we saw of soldiers looking scared in a gully below a field, and he located the exact field and the exact gully and took a photo from the same angle and casually mentioned the look of horror on the young soldiers’ faces was due to them getting ready to storm the field above them which was filled with German soldiers in camp, and how almost certainly 90% of people in that piece of film died about 30 minutes after it was captured.

That’s quite a revelation to pick up in a small aside, and reframed the bit of film and explained so much that was lost in how the movie was ultimately made. By adding no historical context, the segment of scared soldiers just felt like an odd moment among hundreds of other clips, notable only for the frightened looks on a couple faces that are unexplained and entirely left to the viewer.

We should never forget the horrors of war. If we ignore the lessons we are doomed to repeat them, and I think the concept of the project was a wonderful one, but the execution fell far short of the mark. It didn’t have to be an exhaustive Ken Burns style project that takes 5-10 years to complete, but on the other hand, 90 minutes of daily life footage combined with soldier stories isn’t quite enough to tell a full picture of what took place.

I wanted to like this more than I did, and I wanted it to be a great piece of history, but ultimately, it was not.

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29 days ago
Sad. The effort that went into making this looked incredible.
Denver, CO

Apps gather your location and then sell the data

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The New York Times takes a closer look at the data that apps collect and what they know about you:

At least 75 companies receive anonymous, precise location data from apps whose users enable location services to get local news and weather or other information, The Times found. Several of those businesses claim to track up to 200 million mobile devices in the United States — about half those in use last year. The database reviewed by The Times — a sample of information gathered in 2017 and held by one company — reveals people’s travels in startling detail, accurate to within a few yards and in some cases updated more than 14,000 times a day.

The animated visuals in this piece are nice, strengthening the big numbers with small anecdotes. Because the only way to make people care about data privacy is to be as creepy (but responsible) as possible.

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