Here’s A Privacy-Focused Alternative to Dark Sky on Android

Weather apps that don’t sell or pass on your data to third parties are hard to find, but this one from German researchers does the trick.
April 3, 2020, 12:00pm
Lightning
VORTEX II // Sean Waugh NOAA/NSSL 

Dark Sky, a popular weather app for iOS and Android, has been acquired by Apple, which will shut down the Android version in July. On the one hand, as an Android Dark Sky user for years, I appreciated Apple doing this because it gave me something inconsequential to get irrationally angry about for a few hours, a nice change of pace from the existential dread I’ve been floating in for weeks. It was just like old times of being mad online. So thank you, Apple, for that brief reprieve.

On the other hand, fuck you, Apple. I liked that app.

Fortunately, there are dozens if not hundreds of alternatives to choose from. Weather apps, as my colleague Jason Koebler has previously written, are easy to make, in large part because the National Weather Service, a federal agency, provides its data to anyone who wants it for free, including popular third-party apps like AccuWeather and The Weather Channel.

(For a grotesque aside about how the former CEO of AccuWeather Barry Myers lobbied against every effort to make free forecasts available directly to the American public through NWS’s own app even though our tax dollars are paying for those forecasts, read Michael Lewis’s book The Fifth Risk.)

Unfortunately, the fact that weather apps are so easy to develop also makes it an obvious target for companies to make an app, scoop up tons of user data, and sell it to advertisers. The Weather Channel, Weatherbug, and AccuWeather have all been caught doing this shady behavior without user permission; in AccuWeather’s case, it stole user location data even when users had their location turned off.

Dark Sky appeared to be a breath of fresh air in this otherwise polluted landscape. In 2017, its co-founder Adam Grossman addressed weather app privacy concerns head-on in a blog post that said, in part, “We don’t now — and never will — share your location data with 3rd party advertisers or data monetization companies.” (That blog post now 404’s, and Dark Sky’s privacy link redirects to Apple’s privacy policy.)

So, Android users have two choices: set a Google search for their zip code’s weather as a home screen icon—which won’t tell Google anything it doesn’t already know about you—or dive back into the netherworld of third party weather apps.

For various reasons, primarily curiosity, I spent a few hours trying to find a privacy-focused weather app for Android. While some claim to respect user privacy more than others, the ultimate assurance that an app is not misusing the information you give it is to give it no information in the first place. Which is how I chose a weather app created by a privacy-focused research group in Germany.

This app, with the admittedly sketchy name of Weather (Privacy Friendly), was created by a group out of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology called SECUSO that researches digital security and privacy. The group makes dozens of safe apps that are often the target of scammy data hoovers like rulers, flashlights, and note apps.

Unlike all other weather apps I’ve used, SECUSO’s doesn’t ask for any permissions, not even your location. It only requires an internet connection to download the latest weather data, based on the location you manually enter.

The weather data comes from OpenWeatherMap, which in turn gets its data from, well, the same place as every other weather app: government weather services, including the National Weather Service. But because SECUSO’s app doesn’t collect any information about me, I don’t have to worry about what OpenWeatherMap is doing. At most, it knows my zip code.

This is in stark contrast to the other weather apps The Verge recommends for former Dark Sky (to The Verge’s credit, their roundup includes all the permissions each app requests). All of these apps request location and media storage access at the very least, although some like AccuWeather ask for dozens of permissions that essentially grants it access to your entire phone.

Of course, many of these permissions are required for more advanced features. Which brings us to the downside of not just SECUSO’s weather app, but pretty much all privacy-conscious programs. It’s not very flashy or feature-rich.

But, I’m past the point of needing my weather app to have a smooth UI or look pretty. I have only been using the app for a few days, so I cannot vouch for its accuracy. My guess is it will be just like every other weather app, because it uses similar data to every other weather app, and will be close enough most of the time about what the next 72 hours will be like. Personally, I don’t need any more from a weather app, and it’s strange to think I ever did.

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