Is the weather app spying on you?

There is a good chance that your favorite mobile weather app is spying on you. See how to check it and what you should watch out for.

weather, application, weather, smartphone

Weather apps have a dark past when it comes to your privacy. Knowing what the weather will be like in your area is very useful, but choosing the right app for this should be based on the privacy and transparency policy of its manufacturer, rather than results and looks.

You want to look at a weather app to see the weather, not to be seen. But millions of people use weather apps that track them and violate their privacy.

See how to check the app you have installed and what to watch out for.

Why are weather apps a privacy nightmare?

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If you've looked for weather apps in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store, you've probably been overwhelmed by the sheer number of them. And not only their number, but also how many times they have been downloaded. The most popular weather apps have millions of downloads.

And these numbers are not random. Weather apps are essential tools for all users, since knowing in advance what the weather will be like for the next few days allows you to plan a walk, a job, and a bunch of other activities.

Having a small computer in your pocket that can see the weather and send you rain alerts helps you plan a hike or bike ride in nature.

Additionally, weather data is provided free of charge to app developers. The National Meteorological Service of each country, as well as the international organizations that deal with the weather, provide free of charge all the basic information for a 5-day forecast. Weather station measurements are also provided free of charge in real time.

There is a small charge when the information becomes very specialized, but this is of no concern to the typical, average mobile user. Having practically no outlet, developers releasing a weather app can only monetize it.

And what's the easiest way to monetize an app? Not by charging for the app or offering a subscription, since many users are incredibly resistant to paying for an app, but by showing ads, tracking users, and selling user data.

And don't think we're obsessed with privacy. The problem is not theoretical at all. There have been many incidents of privacy violations over the years through such apps.

In 2017, a security researcher discovered that the company AccuWeather had its app track users and share their data, even when users had clearly asked to opt out. AccuWeather then claimed they had no idea about the issue and blamed a service they were working with, but was basically disbelieved.

In 2018, the New York Times tried many popular apps and monitored their data collection and distribution patterns. Notably in their search for weather apps, the popular weather app WeatherBug was found to be sharing users' precise location data with 40 different companies.

In 2019, it was the app's turn Weather Channel to be targeted. The company that ran the app was sued on the grounds that it was collecting and selling user data in a way that wasn't clearly visible to users so they would know about it. Eventually a settlement was reached with the plaintiff and the company simply updated its privacy policy.

All three of these facts refer to very high-profile applications used by tens of millions of people. The app stores have been flooded with weather apps over the years, making it practically impossible to keep track of.

In 2019, security researchers revealed that many weather apps not only track and collect data, but also enroll users in services, spoof ad clicks, and other unpredictable scams.

It is no exaggeration to say that tens of millions of people have unwittingly given away personal information, such as their daily commute, which has been sold to advertisers.

Of course we can't put all weather apps in the same bag, but to download such an app without any vetting, and with such a history, is definitely not very smart of you.

So there are clearly serious concerns about the privacy of your data in weather apps. How does this all apply to you who just want to know if it's going to rain today or if the dust or pollen or cloud count is high enough that you might need to take extra allergy medicine?

Here's what to do about being tracked by a weather app.

Check your current app

spy detective track analysis

You probably already have such an app installed on your phone. You will probably like this app a lot because of its graphics and ease of reading. We don't want to tell you to switch it to another one, but you should at least consider it by paying attention to the basic privacy control.

Search for information about the weather app of your choice. See the app's listing on both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store. Privacy transparency has improved over time, thanks to public awareness and in response to pressure from European Union legislation.

How does your weather app use data? What is the company's privacy policy? Has anything been heard about this company before or now?

With the plethora of options for weather apps it's wise to avoid apps that have even the slightest negative offense, rather than assume that companies have changed their behavior.

You can check from the stores which permissions your app requires. But even if you cut all the permissions it wants, in theory the app shouldn't stop working and should give you weather information for the area you tell it to.

If it doesn't and refuses to run, you better delete it and look for another one.

For its basic purpose, your weather app doesn't need to know your exact location. You can alternatively turn off precise location data at the app level on both Android and iOS .

That way, your weather app will know roughly where you are in, say, Athens, rather than every address you've visited and the route you took to work.

At the same time, it will save you from having to update it about your general location if you're traveling long distances and want weather updates to stay up-to-date for your area all the time.

If you don't travel long distances and just move within a city or region, consider turning off location tracking for the app entirely and just tell it to always show you Athens, for example.

Pay for the app

weather, application, weather, smartphone

Everyone loves free apps. Especially to us who support a free, open, and free internet.

The point is that the developers should be paid too, but collecting and aggregating weather data at a small geographic scale and with accuracy isn't cheap either.

Behind the scenes your weather app (or at least the platform that drives it) makes many API calls to one or more weather services. Once you get past the low percentage of API calls you can get from a free app, things start to get expensive.

Someone has to pay for both the app development costs and all those API calls. So even if you're loathe to pay for an app, consider that your options are usually:

  • either put up with ads (and potential privacy issues);
  • or enjoy fewer features,
  • or subsidize the use of your app by people who pay or donate to the developer
  • or pay for the service.

Most applications, however, ask for a really minimal cost like an annual subscription.

Ditch the weather apps

weather windy

We think weather apps, at least the privacy-friendly ones, are great. It's useful to get real-time weather alerts for your area, which will warn you of an upcoming storm.

But if you use the weather app not in real time, but just like a classic news service, that is, if you check the weather every morning or before you go to bed to see the forecast for the next day, then maybe you don't really need a weather app.

You could avoid the potential privacy issue, draining your battery, by simply not installing it at all.

You could simply add a bookmark to your browser that points to EMY website and specifically the weather forecast for your area or any other service you wish.

If you want weather data and don't need real-time updates and alerts, there's nothing wrong with just checking a website when you need to know the weather.

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Written by Dimitris

Dimitris hates on Mondays .....

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