The Edge Episode 1: Pattern, How Do You Know Me?

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Laura and Leah discover they use the same mysterious astrology app, The Pattern. They try to figure out how it works, who owns it, and what The Pattern is really doing with their data, which takes them all the way across the country to a mailroom in Manhattan. Along the way, they consult with Serge Egelman, the research director at UC Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, who reveals the answers to an even scarier question: What access do we unknowingly give away to all apps on our phones?

Show Notes

This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with reporting from Kaitlyn Nicholas. Written and hosted by Laura Smith and Leah Worthington.

Special thanks to Pat Joseph, Victoria Chase, Serge Egelman, Rachel Witte, and California magazine intern, Tessa Sternberg. Art by Michiko Toki, and original music by Mogli Maureal.

Transcript

LAURA SMITH: Leah, I’m really excited about today’s show. For one thing, it is our first ever episode of The Edge.

LEAH WORTHINGTON: Woohoo!

LAURA: And also because it starts with a story that has all the ingredients of a great internet mystery.

LEAH: By which you mean Channing Tatum and astrology? Right? 

LAURA: Exactly. And it all started, as all important things do, with a Tweet. On July 12 of last year, actor slash hot, buff guy Channing Tatum tweeted a very intriguing video.

CHANNING TATUM: I need some answers ok? Cuz … What is this pattern sh*t? It’s an app I just downloaded called The Pattern. How do you know what you know about me, Pattern? People at The Pattern, people who use The Pattern, you need to DM me right now and tell me how you know this stuff. I don’t know if I even want to know this stuff.

LEAH: So Laura, what is this Pattern sh*t?

LAURA: Oh, Leah, don’t pretend like you don’t know. But for those of you who don’t, The Pattern is an astrology app. 

LEAH: Well, not exactly astrology …

LAURA: Right. The Pattern doesn’t reference planetary positions or the Zodiac or anything, but it gives you these daily predictions based on some basic personal info you give.

LEAH: They’re like really eloquent, detailed fortune cookie messages.

LAURA: And they’re surprisingly accurate.

LEAH: Sometimes disturbingly accurate.

[THEME MUSIC]

LAURA: This is The Edge, a new podcast produced by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association.

LEAH: Where we bring UC Berkeley expertise to bear on the crazy-cool, and sometimes scary, things that are at the cutting-edge of science and society.

LAURA: This episode is all about smartphone apps.

LEAH: What they know about our personal lives and internet habits. 

LAURA: And who they share the information with … .  I’m your host, Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m also your host, Leah Worthington.

LAURA: Okay, back to Channing.

[MUSIC OUT]

LAURA: So Tatum’s video went viral, and YouTube went a little crazy. 

SANDRA CAROLINA: Okay, so if you’re anything like me you were on social media last week, and Channing Tatum completely broke the internet saying that The Pattern was this creepy little app … .

LAURA: And people started making videos of themselves reacting to their own personalized patterns.

FANGIRL REACTS: “You may come across as cold, critical, or cynical”… . Ouch! Is that me? 

THEMINDOFANT: Now, this right here just reading this alone is literally what I’m going through, as we speak. 

ROHINI ELYSE: “Your sense of home, both externally and within yourself, is expanding. This could include a big move, deciding to settle down, or changing your current living situation”… . That’s exactly what we’re doing, and it starts at the exact time that we’re moving. LIKE WHAT??? Astrology is so crazy! I love it so much. 

LEAH: But not everyone was all that impressed by The Pattern’s predictions. 

AUGY-E: Ugh. Okay so, “At your best you have incredible integrity and precision about the work you do.” FALSE! “You don’t miss a thing in your professional or personal life.” AGAIN, FALSE! “It’s like the universe is behind you and you can’t lose.” FALSE! I’ve always lost at everything. I’ve never won anything in my life! Times when I’ve won they actually said, oh, you know what? You actually lost!  

LAURA: These videos are pretty hilarious and addicting, but they’re also kinda relatable. Right, Leah?

LEAH: Yeah, so the thing is, we both use The Pattern.

LAURA: And we’re pretty into it.

LEAH: You mean we were pretty into it … before.

LAURA: Yes. Before we knew the truth. 

LEAH: Now we feel … 

LAURA: Sort of suspicious? 

LEAH: Leery?

LAURA: Mistrustful.

LEAH: I think all those mean the same thing.

LAURA: Before we get into how we went from innocent, wide-eyed pattern lovers to paranoid “app-a-phobes”— 

LEAH: I’m sorry. Do you just say “app-a-phobes”?

LAURA: Yes, we’re “app-a-phobes” now. But before we explain how that happened, we should say a little more about how The Pattern works and why it’s so … “app-pealing.”

LEAH: Stop. 

(LAUGHS) 

LAURA: So, it’s pretty simple. You give them your birth date, time, and location of birth. And it’s just it just tells you about yourself, sort of like the daily mini horoscope. And, as we said, a lot of it feels really accurate.

LEAH: Yeah, so for example, the other day I got this notification: “You might develop a fear of being rejected and try to conform to mainstream culture, hiding your uniqueness from others and bringing on anxiety and depression.” So I really relate to that. I feel like I spent my whole life trying to conform, and now I’m trying to release my uniqueness.

LAURA: Your inner uniqueness, very well hidden.

LEAH: Yeah, in fact, I’ve never seen it at all.

(LAUGHS) 

LAURA: Okay, here’s what mine said. It’s a little depressing, get ready … “Instead of being there for you, your partners may be irresponsible and barely able to take care of themselves, let alone you … ” Womp womp.

LEAH: Is that true?

LAURA: No comment.

LAURA: I think the fact that The Pattern doesn’t use astrology lingo is part of why I like it.

LEAH: Yeah, we’re not really astrology people, and The Pattern doesn’t do the whole “You’re a Scorpio, your moon is aligned, and your stars are floating around in a counterclockwise direction … thing.” You know? I’m not into that.

(LAUGHS) 

LAURA: Me either. 

LAURA: Okay, how it works is every day you get a status update, and you can also enter in other people’s birthdays and information and hear about what’s going on with them and how it interacts with you.

LEAH: Yeah, like you have your daughter hooked up right there, don’t you? 

LAURA: I do. 

LEAH: I hear she’s very codependent. 

LAURA: She is very codependent. Very, very codependent. She is one year old. 

(LAUGHS)

LEAH: That’s fair.

LAURA: Here’s one I got the other day for her: “Anyone who’s threatened by Lucy’s creative, independent nature, or makes her feel guilty about prioritizing her freedom isn’t for her.”

LEAH: Good to know! For all her 18-month boyfriends. 

LAURA: Yes, exactly! 

LEAH: Another big part of The Pattern’s appeal is that, like a lot of super successful apps, it’s free.

LAURA: Yeah. Like that other free app that blew up in 2019. Remember FaceApp?

LEAH: Yeah, that was one that took pictures of you and made you look old. But it turned out FaceApp was run by some sort of mysterious Russian company, and users had unknowingly given them rights to do whatever they wanted to do with people’s data.

LAURA: Yeah, that was a bummer. But turning back to Channing Tatum, as all things do … 

LEAH: Nice transition. 

LAURA: Yeah. So toward the end of this Twitter video about The Pattern, he said this:

CHANNING: Is the phone listening? Are you listening through the phone, Pattern? AI, the algorithm that is The Pattern? Are you listening through my phone and then just regurgitating stuff that I’m afraid of? You know what? Pattern people, you should just call me. 

LEAH: So like Channing, my boy Channing. We started asking questions.

LAURA: Tough … probing … journalistic-sorta questions.

LEAH: Like, what exactly is The Pattern? Who’s behind it? And what’s in it for them?

LAURA: What do they want from us? The Pattern is free. But are we paying the hidden cost? 

LAURA: At first we thought, we have questions about The Pattern, so let’s just talk to the people behind The Pattern. 

LEAH: Not quite so simple it turns out. We went to the website, and there was no information, no listing of employees, no founder, no names, just basically an email address contact [at] The Pattern [dot] com, which we emailed and just got kind of like an automatic email reply.

LAURA: So instead, we reached out to someone who might be able to help us understand how apps like The Pattern work.

LAURA AND LEAH: SERGE.

LEAH: Oh, god, we did that at the same time.

LAURA: Great minds, great minds.

LAURA: Hi Serge. How are you?

SERGE EGELMAN: Good. 

LAURA: I’m Laura.

SERGE: Serge.

LEAH: I’m Leah.

SERGE: My name is Serge Egelman and I’m the Research Director of the Usable Security and Privacy Group at the International Computer Science Institute. The International Computer Science Institute is a research institute affiliated with UC Berkeley.

LEAH: Serge developed an app called AppCensus that basically tells you what all these apps are doing with your data.

SERGE: What they want to do is be able to, you know, make a profile of your interests so that they can bombard you with ads, or sell the data to others who will do the same. And to do that, they don’t need to know your name, they just need to know all about your activities. The way that they do that is through the collection of what are known as persistent identifiers. And basically what that means is just a string of seemingly random digits that uniquely identifies you. So think of it like a social security number. 

LAURA: Basically, the string of random numbers follows you around the internet, and anytime you shop for socks or buy movie tickets or go to an anti-vaxxer blog, third parties are able to observe you—aka person number 923674789—doing these things.

LEAH: What was that number again? 

LAURA: Yeah. Anyway.

SERGE: And you know, with that they can come up with, you know, pretty detailed profiles of your behaviors, which then in turn are used to predict your interests.

LEAH: And they’re pretty good at it.

SERGE: There’s a persistent conspiracy theory that won’t die about Facebook and other companies secretly listening to the microphone on your phone. People talk about, “Oh, I had this conversation, and now I’m suddenly getting ads for this thing that I talked about.” And they assume it’s because the microphone is, you know, is being used. That’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is, you know, these algorithms that predict your interests are very accurate and it’s because people don’t understand how accurate those are that they just assume it’s the microphone that’s, you know, that’s being used to predict their interests. So as we’ve learned over the past year or two, political campaigns are now using this too. So manipulating how people vote or trying to, either suppress the vote or motivate voters, that’s a thing. Another use that I learned about recently is hedge funds are buying this data. So they can see foot traffic into retail stores to predict quarterly earnings reports before those earnings reports are released. 

LAURA: That’s wild. 

LEAH: And the problem with it is that when we sign up for these apps, we usually sign away our right to privacy too.

LAURA: Which isn’t to say that everything they do with our data is legal.

LEAH: No, and Serge says that privacy policies are often deliberately written to be confusing to the users.

SERGE: The main thing that was surprising was just the breadth of the violations that we’ve seen. We weren’t expecting to see half the apps show evidence of these things. 

LEAH: In case you missed it, Serge just said that half the apps in the world are getting away with major violations. And nothing much is being done about it. 

LAURA: Serge explained that the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, is totally overwhelmed and can only take on about a dozen cases per year. Which is crazy when there are thousands of apps violating the policies.

SERGE: Basically, you know, that’s sending a message that it’s okay to get away with doing this because there’s just not going to be any enforcement.

LEAH: And there’s no way to turn this off?

SERGE: Not really, because it’s largely opaque to consumers. 

LAURA: I could just burn my phone. 

LEAH: Yes. 

LAURA: That’s the only solution. 

SERGE: Yeah, I mean the problem is you know, it’s obviously ridiculous to suggest that oh, well, the solution is to just not use technology. That’s not a reasonable solution. I mean that’s also why, you know personally, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is almost entirely a policy problem. 

LAURA: Just burn them. 

LEAH: It’s the only way.

SERGE: Or, you know, or support comprehensive privacy regulation so that some of the, you know, the most egregious behaviors are illegal. And then, you know, arm the regulatory agencies with the power to actually bring enforcement actions. 

LAURA: That actually sounds like a pretty reasonable solution. Okay.

LEAH: We asked Serge which apps are the worst offenders in terms of privacy violations. And he said he’s not actually so worried about the big companies, like Google, Facebook, Amazon, because they’ve got so many eyes watching their every move.

SERGE: There are a lot of plaintiffs attorneys who salivate about being able to sue, you know, Amazon, or Facebook. It’s the smaller ones that you’ve never heard of that are usually the bigger offenders.

LAURA: Well, Serge, it’s funny, you should say that, because we actually have a small company that we’d like to talk to you about. 

SERGE: Okay. 

LAURA: Or a lesser-known company. We don’t actually know how small it is because we don’t know anything about this company. 

LEAH: It’s very cryptic. 

LAURA: It’s very mysterious. So, have you ever heard of The Pattern? 

SERGE: No. 

LAURA: Good. Okay. 

LEAH: It’s a phenomenon. 

SERGE: Is there an app?

LAURA: Yeah.

LEAH: We tried searching it on your database and couldn’t find it.

SERGE: It might not even be in our database. 

LEAH: That makes me nervous. 

LAURA: That makes me really nervous. 

LAURA: Furious clicking. He’s in the mainframe, he’s hacking the mainframe. 

LEAH: Do you know what a mainframe is?

LAURA: No.

SERGE: The Pattern. Okay, it’s on here.

LAURA: While Serge hacked into the mainframe, I decided to read him the policy statement to see what he thought about it.

LAURA: Okay. So, this is just a little snippet of their privacy policy … “When you interact with The Pattern—

LEAH: Dun dun dun.

LAURA: “—through the site, we and third parties that provide functionality on the site may engage, receive, collect, and store certain types of information.” Certain types? 

SERGE: And may. They may! They’re not sure what they’re going to receive. I mean, if they don’t know what they are going to receive exactly, how could you?

LAURA: “When you interact with us through the application, we also collect information automatically using different technologies. Such information, which is collected passively using various technologies may include, but is not is not limited to, information about your device.”

SERGE: So that’s where we’re talking about the persistent identifiers that they use for tracking you. 

LAURA: Oh, okay.

SERGE: Without saying it. 

LAURA: Okay.

LEAH: That is so unclear.

SERGE: Yeah, by design.

LAURA: Okay. “The Pattern may store such information itself, or such information may be included in databases, owned and maintained by ‘The Pattern’ affiliates, agents, or service providers.”

SERGE: Yea. How do they define “affiliates”? 

LAURA: That’s a great question. 

SERGE: Because often I see privacy policies where it’ll say “We don’t share your data with anyone, except for our affiliates,” and then they define the affiliates to be anyone they share data with.

LEAH: That’s awesome. 

LAURA: And also, the word “affiliates” just reminds me of like, a mobster. It’s like, these are my affiliates.

LEAH: Yeah, my colleagues and friends.

SERGE: They’re legitimate business people.

LAURA: They’re not going to break your kneecaps. This last sentence kind of freaks me out. “The information collected through these cookies, or similar technologies, are subject to the privacy policies of those third parties over which Pattern has no control.”

SERGE: Yeah, basically, “We share your data with lots of third parties; they’ll do whatever they want with your data. And we have no control over that.”

LAURA: So I thought that The Pattern was divining my future. What do you think The Pattern is doing?

SERGE: I mean, this is literally what Cambridge Analytica’s business model was, right? So it was get you to fill out free online personality tests, which is the equivalent of the astrology. Meanwhile, on the back end, they’re using that to build a personality profile of you, which they could then sell to advertisers or political campaigns, as the case would be.

LEAH: So as we’re reading this, you’re nodding along and saying, “Yeah, yeah, this all sounds really familiar.” Does it make you nervous at all? Is this what everyone is doing?

SERGE: Oh, this is the status quo.

LEAH: So we learned a lot from our conversation with Serge. 

LAURA: For instance, that we should douse our phones and gasoline and light them on fire.

LEAH: That, and we learned the extent to which the apps that we casually download to our phones are not so casually tracking every little thing we do. 

LAURA: Knowing that The Pattern knows so much about us, made us want to find them even more to figure out who’s behind it.

LEAH: We were able to find a mailing address for The Pattern in New York City. It was listed in their Terms of Service on their website.

LAURA: So we called a journalist, Kaitlyn Nicholas, our podcast friend in New York and she went to go see what was there. 

KAITLYN NICHOLAS: It’s either the Greenwich Village mail center, or it’s the new village dry cleaners. 

[IN-STORE CHATTER]

KAITLYN: Hey, excuse me. I’m looking for number 511. 

STORE OWNER: This is 511.

KAITLYN: This is 511? Do you know how I buzz up to number 11? 

STORE OWNER: There is no … these are just mailboxes. If you’re looking for an actual business, it’s not here. They’re just using this as their mailing address. Who are you looking for?

KAITLYN: I’m looking for The Pattern.

STORE OWNER: The Pattern?

KAITLYN: It’s like an app company. They listed their address as 511. Number 11.

STORE OWNER: Right, because they’re using it as a mailing address but it’s not … Do you know the person?

KAITLYN: I do not. I was wondering if you can tell me if you’ve ever seen anyone pick up mail from this address?

STORE OWNER: From box 11? Yeah. 

KAITLYN: You have? 

STORE OWNER: Yeah.

KAITLYN: Okay, so it’s picked up regularly.

STORE OWNER: Mhmm.

KAITLYN: Okay, Have you ever used the app, The Pattern?

STORE OWNER: No.

KAITLYN: It’s an astrology app for your phone.

STORE OWNER: Yeah, no I don’t know anything about it.

KAITLYN: Do you believe in astrology?

STORE OWNER: I don’t know. I used to when I was younger. But I don’t know … 

(LAUGHS)

KAITLYN: Okay, what’s your sign?

STORE OWNER: Gemini.

KAITLYN: Gemini … 

LAURA: So we went back to Serge to see if we could find out who The Pattern was giving our data to. 

LEAH: So Serge, you did some stuff?

SERGE: Yeah. 

LEAH: You hacked in …

SERGE: I downloaded it and ran it on an instrumented phone to see what it’s doing.

LEAH: Can you talk us through it? 

SERGE: I mean here’s basically a spreadsheet showing all the different types of personal information that were sent to different third parties. 

LAURA: Basically, we’re looking at a spreadsheet documenting that when you open the app, this is the type of data that’s being collected. When and where it’s being sent to. It’s pretty intimidating. Lots of rows and columns.

SERGE: This first one was for you know, geolocation information based on what I typed in for birthplace. 

LAURA: For anyone who hasn’t downloaded The Pattern, when you first set up your account you have to provide your name, birthdate, time and location of birth. So that you know, The Pattern can, you know, determine the astrological configuration of the cosmos when you were born.

SERGE: But then, you know, there are other ones like for instance, you know, as we go further down, we have Amplitude, which is an advertising company. They collected my phone number and my name. Along with this persistent identifier, which is, you know, used for advertising and tracking.  

LEAH: Wait, they just get our phone number because we’re using our phones? 

SERGE: Yeah, they can.

SERGE: The point is, it’s going to this company, Amplitude, and it’s basically an advertising company, so, you know, tracking in-app behaviors, so that you can figure out how to best monetize your app. 

LEAH: Serge explained that a lot of apps have Facebook code in them, which enables Facebook to track the apps that you’re using, what you’re doing with them, to build a profile of your activity. What do they do with this information? Target you with ads based on your behavior. Of course. 

LAURA: This might be a really dumb question, but are they getting money from Facebook to give them that information?

SERGE: Well, I don’t know, honestly, in this case. So, when the app is outright using, you know, Facebook ads, when a user sees those ads or clicks on them, then the developer gets paid by Facebook.

LAURA: So at this point, I’m starting to understand how Facebook kind of has its hand in so much more in society than I realized. And how it knows so much more about you. It’s not really a social media website but like a map of human behavior, of a huge portion of the world. And if you drew a web connecting all the apps and its users in the world, Facebook would be at the center of it. 

SERGE: What we’re seeing here is this isn’t collecting my Facebook account info it’s collecting the unique identifier of my phone. And so Facebook is basically creating a profile all about me that’s, you know, about what I do on this device, and, at some point, they could use that persistent identifier to then link with my real world identity and basically have all of this information about me, even if I’ve never created a Facebook account before. And you know, that’s what they do! And it’s the same thing on the web. So when you visit websites that have the Facebook ‘like’ button, even if you never click that, it’s loading off of Facebook’s website, and, in that process, it sets identifiers in your browser, “cookies,” so that whenever you go to a page that has content from Facebook embedded in it, Facebook you know sees ‘oh I’ve seen this person before on these other websites’ and that contributes to building a profile of you, even if you’ve never had a Facebook account before. And that’s why it’s astonishing that all of the times that Facebook executives have testified to Congress and said, ‘all the data we have is what users have, you know, willingly given us’ is just utter b******t. 

LAURA: Would you know if your information was being shared with like a government, like maybe your own government?

SERGE: No. And you know, the way the government operates when they request data, is, you know, it’s not, they’re putting code onto your phone to then monitor your activities. Instead they’re going to go to one of these companies and say, you know, “Give us the data that you’ve collected,” or, you know, “Here’s a subpoena, and give us the data that you’ve collected.” And, you know, there’s no way of knowing that that’s happening, because that’s all happening behind the scenes at those companies.

LAURA: I’m just thinking like if you’re an activist, like, an immigration activist or something, and the government views immigration activists as enemies of the state, and then they could get your information—

SERGE: Yeah, absolutely.

LAURA: Man, the internet is really feeling like a net loss right now.

SERGE: I’m not sure about the “net loss,” but there are certain, you know, there’s certainly issues now for autonomy and being able to make decisions about what happens to your information. And, you know, how can you possibly make decisions like that when you have no way of knowing what’s happening to the information? That’s kind of the whole whole advertising industry, right? The advertising industry is, you know, specifically for getting you to, you know, do things that you otherwise wouldn’t do. It’s just gotten a lot more invasive now.

LAURA: Serge, thank you so much. 

SERGE: Yeah, absolutely.

LEAH: So, to sum things up, The Pattern’s privacy policy gives them a lot of leeway to do what they want with our data, this isn’t to say that they are doing anything with our data, but they could if they wanted to. And in the grand scheme of apps, they’re definitely not the worst offender. Some apps do some really terrible things like screen captures of what you’re doing on your phone. And there’s almost no way of knowing if an app is doing this.

LAURA: So we felt like there was really one thing left to do. Figure out who owns The Pattern. We called the licensing company listed on their business forms in New York. We tried emailing them again, and we messaged them on Instagram. Nothing. And then we contacted Channing Tatum, obviously.

LEAH: Yeah, as The Pattern’s number one fan, I thought he might have something to say and even if he didn’t, I thought either he would know or he’d be willing to use his leverage, his great power to help me find out. So I messaged him, no response. 

LAURA: But then we finally got a break. 

LEAH: So basically I called the Delaware Deptarment of State, which is where the business is registered—presumably for tax purposes. And I spoke to a woman who at first said she couldn’t give me any information. But then I asked again and … she said yes!

LAURA: And she gave it to you. 

LEAH: Yep. 

LAURA: The name and contact info.

LEAH: Yep. 

LAURA: So, what’s the name? 

LEAH: Her name is Lisa Donovan. 

LAURA: This is from an interview that she gave to the Future of Storytelling. 

LISA DONOVAN: I moved out to Los Angeles in 2002 and wanted to be a part of traditional entertainment as an actor and hopefully as a filmmaker. While I pursued acting, I wound up learning a lot about production and production design and becoming an editor and eventually starting my own production company. And we were always making sort of creative projects, but we had no place to put them. And in 2005, when YouTube started, we were just really excited to discover it because this was a place to put the content that we were creating. And then in 2006, I started my own channel, which was LisaNova

LISANOVA: “Hi, guys, it’s me, LisaNova … (to strangers) Hey guys … I have a channel on YouTube … “

LAURA: So, they’re funny sort of low budget. In one episode she’s Mary Poppins, and she’s screaming at some kids.

[CLIP FROM LISANOVA’S MARY POPPINS IMPERSONATION]

LEAH: And then there’s another series called “Hot Girls in Rehab,” which is exactly what you would imagine.

LISA: “Hey everyone, I’m Ariel. I’m super rich and totally awesome. This is going to be the best rehab trip ever. I can’t wait to tell everybody about my addict to the ‘tuss.”

LAURA: So Lisa Donovan also co-founded this production company called Maker Studios. So Lisa sold Maker Studios to Disney for like 500 million dollars. And then she just sort of vanishes. She stops making videos; her social media accounts go quiet.

LEAH: She’s just kind of gone … until March 20th of 2019 when she posted on Instagram with a post that says,”‘It’s been a minute!” with parentheses “Two years, love y’all.

LAURA: So now that we had a name we searched Lisa Donovan and The Pattern together, and we actually did get a result. It was a single New York Times article from April of 2019. And it’s the kind of thing that you couldn’t find if you didn’t know what you were looking for.

LEAH: Yeah. And it made me It made us feel kind of stupid, because then all of a sudden, there was this article that named her in connection with the app. But I tried a few other searches like just searching “The Pattern founder,” “Lisa Donovan” in general without attaching it, and you really can’t find it unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. 

LAURA: Yeah exactly. 

LEAH: So, we really wanted to get in touch with her. We tried all of her old phone numbers, workplaces, email accounts, we tried to guess some of her email accounts. Remember that? You just made up a bunch of names [at] gmail [dot] com.

LAURA: Well it was her first and last names in different forms.

LEAH: It was smart. 

LAURA: It was a really good idea.

LEAH: It was a good idea. We tried sending her messages through Instagram. I tried Twitter, we tried calling her family, her friends, colleagues. I even tried an apartment where she used to live, I think, but just ended up reaching some dude named Matthew.  

LAURA: So Leah, knowing what you know, are you gonna delete your app?

LEAH: Are you?

LAURA: You first.

LEAH: I still kind of like it. I mean like it slash hate it. I kind of … I don’t know, I kind of roll my eyes every time I get a notification. You know, it still feels pretty accurate at times and knowing that The Pattern is possibly just a front for data collection doesn’t really change that. I don’t know, it doesn’t seem all that evil. Maybe there is still some benefit to reflecting on my life once a day. 

LAURA: Yeah, like the app is free, maybe that’s the price we pay. 

LEAH: What about you?

LAURA: Same. Yeah, I haven’t deleted it. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. But there are definitely some alarming implications for data privacy. And maybe it’s not something we should just resign ourselves to. Maybe there’s something we can do about it.

LEAH: Like be more mindful of downloading free apps and actually try to pay attention to what companies are doing with your data, maybe read the privacy policy, or look it up online if you don’t want to read it, and definitely support better privacy legislation.

LAURA: Speaking of which, a new privacy law just went into effect in California, which gives residents the right to know what personal information companies have collected, how it will be used, and who it’s going to be shared with.

LEAH: And you can ask for your personal data to be deleted, or you can opt out of it being sold altogether. Check out our podcast homepage for more information about how to do that. Laura and I have already done that with The Pattern. We’re waiting to hear back. They have 45 days.

LEAH: Okay, it is now 43 days later and unfortunately in the intervening 43 days, a pandemic occurred and we are now sheltering in place in our homes and have created home recording studios.

LAURA: Yeah, it really sucks. Leah your studio consists of hiding under a blanket, right? 

LEAH: Yeah, pretty much. It’s really hot in my recording studio.

LAURA: Yeah, my studio sucks too. It has a toddler in it.

LEAH: Oh boy. So anyway, where were we? Now we’ve traveled through time … Laura has gotten an email from The Pattern with her information. I haven’t, for reasons that aren’t  totally clear—nothing in this is totally clear. But we’ll just go with Laura’s. Okay, so what did you get Laura?

LAURA: Well I got this email from The Pattern with a link that said it would expire one week from today and they also sent this message as a reminder. They said: “Please note: Personal data collected by The Pattern is voluntarily input by you.” And there are few different files one of one which told me about the data they have.

LEAH: And what do they have?!

LAURA: Hmm, let me see here I’m clicking to open it says they have my name, my username, my email, birth city, birth state, birth country, birth date, birth time, my gender, time zone, mobile number, Facebook account … So yeah, I guess all things that I put in … Except that string of numbers that follow you around everywhere, the unique identifier. There’s a number, it’s like 16 digits. That must be my unique identifier … Then there’s this really weird note. It’s kind of a game changer. They said “The Pattern has not sold your information to any third parties.”

LEAH: What! Oh my god.

LAURA: Okay, so I emailed Serge, and basically he said it’s possible that they’re not really selling any data to third parties. All the uses listed are legitimate services that one might need to hire a third parties to run an app like this. So it’s not clear that they’re using our data for other purposes, at least not based on this section of the Privacy Policy. I honestly have no idea how they are making money. Maybe they’ll eventually switch to a paid premium model once they get a big enough user base? I just have no idea.

LEAH: Wow, this just gets more and more mysterious … So okay, so is Lisa just running this app out of the kindness of her heart? 

LAURA: No it can’t be that I mean why would anyone do that? 

(LAUGHS) 

LAURA: But yeah, it’s sort of a mystery. Like, why collect it if you’re not going to sell it? Why even know our unique identifiers?

LEAH: I don’t know what to think other than I would like to say to Lisa, “Please call us, and please tell us what you’re doing with our data!”

LAURA: And lastly, since this is a podcast, about the cutting edge of modern life, we always like to give the last word to the next generation. A neighborhood kid!

LEAH: And by neighborhood kid, we mean Marco [Joseph]! Our boss’s son who’s got a message of comfort and optimism for the future. 

MARCO JOSEPH: I mean, it is kind of like creepy that they can watch my every move, but that thought is always like countered by the fact that like … what are they really gonna do with all this?

LAURA: This The Edge, brought to you by California magazine and the Cal Alumni Association. I’m Laura Smith.

LEAH: And I’m Leah Worthington.

LAURA: This episode was produced by Coby McDonald, with reporting from Kaitlyn Nicholas, and support from Pat Joseph, Victoria Chase, Serge Egelman, Rachel Witte, and California magazine intern, Tessa Sternberg. Original music by Mogli Maureal.

LEAH: And, Lisa, if you’re out there … give us a call.

LAURA: That was good!

LEAH: Are we done?

LAURA: I think we’re done! And that’s perfect because I have to go.

Filed under: Innovation
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