Weather Apps Continue To Share Data With Third Parties

While I think we can all agree that every app on our phone is probably an invasive little shit, I’d argue that weather apps deserve their own little corner in hell. We’ve seen weather apps sign folks up for services without their say-so, sneakily get location data from users who deliberately turned that function off, and pull all other sorts of stunts that make it clear just how little these companies care about giving its users any choice about opting out.

Case in point: Earlier today, IBM Watson Advertising—aka the advertising arm for IBM’s Weather Company enterpriseannounced it will be rolling out a new way to track and target us all in a way that’s supposedly more privacy-forward than the typical cookie-adjacent tech we’ve all come to know and loathe. Their answer, apparently, is to lump a ton of other types of sensitive data like what we buy and where we shop from the good folks over at Nielsen, and use that instead. As IBM explains:

Watson Advertising Weather Targeting leverages enterprise-grade AI to analyze over 500 advertising triggers with up to six variables per trigger across 42,000 zip codes every hour, increasing the amount of actionable insights the company generates for brands.

With this collaboration, IBM Watson Advertising will introduce a new suite of triggers and insight reports that will harness Nielsen’s RMS data and weather from IBM’s The Weather Company to provide brands with actionable advertising solutions that do not rely on personally identifiable information, third-party cookies or identifiers.

That’s largely marketing speak, so let’s give some context here: Up until now, The Weather Channel’s app—just like countless other free-to-download apps—partially relied on pawning certain identifiers, like your device’s unique mobile advertising ID and location, into marketers’ hands as a way to make ends meet. Despite the fact that combining a unique tag on a given phone with that phone’s location gives both marketers and federal officials the ability to trace and target that phone and its owner with pretty terrifying accuracy, up until pretty recently the ad industry managed to hide behind the excuse that because this data didn’t, say, contain any directly identifiable information (like a phone owner’s name or address), nuggets like that mobile identifier were deemed effectively “anonymous” and untouched by current privacy regulations here in the US.

But either because of the regulatory writing on the wall across the pond, or because Apple was just getting too darn tired of competitors building massive mobile ID-based businesses without giving it any sort of a cut, the company announced at this year’s WWDC that the iOS 14 software upgrade this fall would allow iPhone users to put a stop to an app’s ability to collect this mobile ID without that user’s explicit consent, the same way the company’s previous OS update cracked down on location permission settings. Naturally, the ad industry flipped out, with players across the planet struggling to figure out a new way to track and target consumers (against their will or otherwise) with the new update, while Apple generously gave them half a year to presumably sort their shit out.

Which brings us to The Weather Channel’s announcement. Ultimately, if the company’s app is cut off from our phone’s tags or precise location over the next few months, the effects on its business—or our privacy—will ultimately be minimal. While the app’s probably best known for, well, collecting data on the weather, it’s also spent the past two years aggregating even more data from third-party brokers to figure out the way that weather impacts how we surf the web and shop in stores. Now that tracking the way we surf is a smidge harder, it makes sense that the Watson team needs to shift its focus onto shopping. The end result isn’t that we’re tracked any less, just that we’re tracked in a different way.

As Watson Advertising’s global lead, Sheri Bachstein, told the ad-industry rag AdExchanger about the announcement:

The weather, for example, invokes certain moods in people and can have a direct impact on their buying behavior in a way that goes beyond umbrella buying during a rainstorm or ordering snow boots in the winter.

Watson tracks aggregate behavior in an effort to reveal the less obvious stuff, Bachstein said.

For instance, it found that sales of baking chocolate and cocoa increased by 62% in northwest central states, such as Kansas, Iowa and Missouri, during an unseasonably warm and rainy one-day forecast, while wine sales were up by 25% during a one-day forecast for clear conditions in east north central United States, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Michigan.

“Factors like humidity, temperature and other weather-related data points can actually be quite revealing,” Bachstein said.

In other words, The Weather App isn’t just telling marketing types whether it’s raining where I happen to be, but also how I’m gonna respond to that particular bout of bad weather, and whether I’m the type to stay inside and bake, stay inside and binge drink, or stay inside and not do anything at all. It’s not just about tracking the weather, but tracking the way it’s impacting our collective moods as a whole.

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Right now, a lot of folks can probably sum up that mood in one word: fear. Some of the most damaging wildfires in recent memory are raging across the West Coast right now, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and killing more than 30 thus far. Meanwhile, states like Mississippi and Alabama are gearing up for the second massive hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast in less than a month. In situations like these, where sticking your head outside to check the weather means getting a lungful of ash or worse, digital tools for tracking the weather—apps included—are less of a luxury and more of a necessity. And as far as IBM’s concerned, it’s a necessity that’s extremely lucrative, whether you realize it or not.

Source: Weather Apps Continue To Share Data With Third Parties

That Game on Your Phone May Be Tracking What You’re Watching on TV – The New York Times

Android screenshots of the app Honey Quest, which uses technology that keeps tabs on the viewing habits of its users.

At first glance, the gaming apps — with names like “Pool 3D,” “Beer Pong: Trickshot” and “Real Bowling Strike 10 Pin” — seem innocuous. One called “Honey Quest” features Jumbo, an animated bear.

Yet these apps, once downloaded onto a smartphone, have the ability to keep tabs on the viewing habits of their users — some of whom may be children — even when the games aren’t being played.

It is yet another example of how companies, using devices that many people feel they can’t do without, are documenting how audiences in a rapidly changing entertainment landscape are viewing television and commercials.

The apps use software from Alphonso, a start-up that collects TV-viewing data for advertisers. Using a smartphone’s microphone, Alphonso’s software can detail what people watch by identifying audio signals in TV ads and shows, sometimes even matching that information with the places people visit and the movies they see. The information can then be used to target ads more precisely and to try to analyze things like which ads prompted a person to go to a car dealership.

More than 250 games that use Alphonso software are available in the Google Play store; some are also available in Apple’s app store.

Some of the tracking is taking place through gaming apps that do not otherwise involve a smartphone’s microphone, including some apps that are geared toward children. The software can also detect sounds even when a phone is in a pocket if the apps are running in the background.

Alphonso said that its software, which does not record human speech, is clearly explained in app descriptions and privacy policies and that the company cannot gain access to users’ microphones and locations unless they agree.

“The consumer is opting in knowingly and can opt out any time,” Ashish Chordia, Alphonso’s chief executive, said, adding that the company’s disclosures comply with Federal Trade Commission guidelines. The company also provides opt-out instructions on its website.

Alphonso declined to say how many people it is collecting data from, and Mr. Chordia said that he could not disclose the names of the roughly 1,000 games and the messaging and social apps with Alphonso software because a rival was trying to hurt its relationships with developers. (The New York Times identified many of the apps in question by searching “Alphonso automated” and “Alphonso software” in the Google Play store.)

Mr. Chordia also said that Alphonso did not approve of its software being used in apps meant for children. But it was, as of earlier this month, integrated in more than a dozen games like “Teeth Fixed” and “Zap Balloons” from KLAP Edutainment in India, which describes itself as “primarily focusing on offering educational games for kids and students.”

Alphonso is one of several young companies using new technologies to enter living rooms in search of fresh information to sell to marketers. For all the talk of digital disruption in the ad world, television still attracts almost $70 billion in annual spending in the United States, and advertisers will gladly pay to amplify and analyze the effectiveness of that spending.

ImageAn Android screenshot of Teeth Fixed. The gaming app uses software from Alphonso, a start-up that collects TV-viewing data for advertisers.

The spread of these technologies, combined with the proliferation of internet-connected TVs and tools that can identify video content through pixels and audio snippets, has resulted in some questionable practices.

Last year, the trade commission issued a warning to a dozen developers who had installed a piece of software known as Silverpush onto apps with the goal of using device microphones to listen for audio signals that humans could not hear to log what they watched on TV. This year, Vizio agreed to pay $2.2 million to settle charges that it was collecting and selling viewing data from millions of internet-connected televisions without the knowledge or consent of the sets’ owners.

Companies gathering such data, especially through games, need to make their business practices clear to consumers “because it’s so inherently unexpected and surprising,” said Justin Brookman, the director of consumer privacy and technology policy at the advocacy group Consumers Union, and a former policy director at the trade commission who worked on the Silverpush case.

“When you see ‘permission for microphone access for ads,’ it may not be clear to a user that, Oh, this means it’s going to be listening to what I do all the time to see if I’m watching ‘Monday Night Football,’” Mr. Brookman said. “They need to go above and beyond and be careful to make sure consumers know what’s going on.”

Through its software, Alphonso can follow the ads that people see in friends’ homes and elsewhere. The company has also worked with movie studios to figure out theater-viewing habits, Mr. Chordia, Alphonso’s chief executive, said. Smartphone apps that are running Alphonso’s software, even if they are not actively in use, can detect movies based on film snippets provided by the studios ahead of time.

“A lot of the folks will go and turn off their phone, but a small portion of people don’t and put it in their pocket,” Mr. Chordia said. “In those cases, we are able to pick up in a small sample who is watching the show or the movie.” Mr. Chordia said that Alphonso has a deal with the music-listening app Shazam, which has microphone access on many phones. Alphonso is able to provide the snippets it picks up to Shazam, he said, which can use its own content-recognition technology to identify users and then sell that information to Alphonso.

Shazam, which Apple recently agreed to buy, declined to comment about Alphonso.

Founded in 2013, Alphonso initially focused on working with apps to capitalize on ads through so-called second-screen viewing, as people increasingly turned their attention to smartphones and tablets during TV breaks. Now, the company has broadened its focus to gathering troves of viewing data from companies like TiVo and directly from TVs and streaming devices through deals with manufacturers.

The disparate viewing information is tied to IP addresses, which can be matched to characteristics like age, gender, income and more through big data brokers like Experian without using personally identifiable information like names and addresses.

Still, the connection between microphones and ads is a sticky one. Americans are both inviting internet-connected speakers from Amazon and Google into their homes in droves while expressing anxiety that companies are secretly listening to them and then using that information in unsettling ways, like eerily relevant ads. (Facebook has tried, and failed, to quash that theory many times.)

“We have to be really careful as we have more devices capturing more information in living rooms and bedrooms and on the street and in other people’s homes that the public is not blindsided and surprised by things,” said Dave Morgan, the founder and chief executive of Simulmedia, which works with advertisers on targeted TV ads. “It’s not what’s legal. It is what’s not creepy.”

Alphonso’s apps and its relationship with Shazam show that there can be a connection between what our phones may hear and the ads that appear on a website or social media feed in the next few hours.

On the other hand, many people have had issues recognizing audio through apps like Shazam if there is too much background noise, so it’s not clear how much information Alphonso’s apps can pick up on a daily basis.

“‘It’s not normally, I don’t think, going to be expected that an application is going to be listening for what you’re watching,” Mr. Brookman said. “But you’re not necessarily expecting your TV to be watching what you’re doing either.”


Source: That Game on Your Phone May Be Tracking What You’re Watching on TV – The New York Times

Facebook Finally Admits It Values Profits Over Privacy

For a platform that likes to keep reminding us over and over and over again that it prizes our individual privacy, Facebook’s done a pretty piss-poor job of actually following through. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the company purposefully prevent any of us from opting out of this sort of data-mining machine, while later accidentally sharing that data with thousands of developers—both locally and abroad. Now, it looks like the data-hoovering giant is trying to weasel out of not only its promises to consumers, but the assurances it made to regulators, too.

This news comes from Bloomberg, which first reported that Facebook was attempting to push back against Ireland’s Data Protection Commission—the de facto national authority responsible for enforcing data-protection laws across the entire EU. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that these Irish authorities sent Facebook a preliminary order asking that the company stop sending the data of European citizens back to the company’s Silicon Valley HQ, or risk a multibillion-dollar fine from local authorities.

To back up a bit, Ireland isn’t acting alone here. Its order came not long after the entire Court Justice of the European Union officially invalidated a set of longstanding rules, known as the Privacy Shield, meant to ensure that the data of EU citizens could be safely held on the servers of U.S.-based tech companies like Facebook and Google without the federal government getting its hands on it. Without any meaningful alternative to the Shield, companies like Facebook are left trying to prove to EU regulators that they can be responsible for EU users’ data—and without the legislative promise that imbued them with some degree of trust that they enjoyed until now.

But when pushed against a wall by the Irish regulator, Facebook didn’t reach into its usual bag of tricks: It didn’t downplay its ties to the always-lurking, all-American dragnet, launch into incredibly flimsy facades about its care for consumer choice, or point any fingers at China. Instead, it just pointed out that the proposal to keep the EU’s data off of Facebook’s American servers would be bad for business.

“A lack of safe, secure and legal international data transfers would damage the economy and hamper the growth of data-driven businesses in the EU, just as we seek a recovery from COVID-19,” Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs, Nick Clegg, said in a blog post earlier this week.

“The impact would be felt by businesses large and small, across multiple sectors. In the worst case scenario, this could mean that a small tech start up in Germany would no longer be able to use a US-based cloud provider. A Spanish product development company could no longer be able to run an operation across multiple time zones. A French retailer may find they can no longer maintain a call centre in Morocco.”

Facebook’s no stranger to using small businesses as a makeshift shield when it’s looking to dodge some weighty regulations or curry favor among the parties trying to pass them. But none of these imaginary international companies are the subject of the EU watchdog’s ire right now—Facebook is. And Facebook, even in the best-case scenario, has a lot of money on the line here. If it doesn’t want to constantly fork over a percentage of its revenue in fines to the European government, it needs to make a good-faith effort to actually cut off these transatlantic data flows from the roughly 400 millon Facebookers based in the region.

Because “data” is kind of a squishy term, technically everything from hiring protocols to cloud services would need to be upended under Ireland’s proposal, since these sorts of jobs often run the risk storing some sort of data from the EU in one of Facebook’s servers. And as the Journal points out, these same stipulations could easily be floated to just about every other major tech company, even if Facebook pushes back. And like Facebook also pointed out, taking this stipulation one step too far has the potential to completely upend trillions of dollars expected to pass between the U.S. and EU digital markets this year. And considering how our trade deals with the region have grown kinda frosty under Trump’s tenure, it’s safe to say that this kind of shock to our e-economy is the last thing we really need right now.

Granted, all of this is the worst-case scenario. Ireland’s data watchdog gave Facebook until “mid-September” to respond to the order, as sources close to the deal told Bloomberg. Once they do, the commission plans to send out a new draft of the order to the 26 other data authorities across the EU for “joint approval” from all sides.

But right now, Facebook isn’t proposing any solutions; it’s leaving it to the EU to come up with a legislative answer that meets privacy standards while also allowing Facebook to bring data to its U.S. servers. And as long as it demands that, it’s admitting that it will always put profits over privacy.

Source: Facebook Finally Admits It Values Profits Over Privacy