Burner Profiles Controversy Politely Heats Up

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It seems that even within the ranks, there are some strong reservations regarding the new Burner Profiles, a mandatory (if you want to buy tickets) scheme that gathers data about you and stores it. . . somewhere.

Late yesterday, the following e-mail was sent to one of the Org’s internal mailing lists (reprinted here by permission of the author, aestetix):

Dear Burning Man,

Now that the Burner Profiles are public, I’ve seen a lot of comments about them, in the Burning Man blog and otherwise. It’s interesting how many viewpoints there are, both for and against. The truly remarkable element to me is that there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground: people are either fervently opposed, or ardently in favor of it. As we all know, pushing things to the extreme doesn’t serve anyone well, so I decided to try and take a more balanced look at it.

First, the obvious benefits. There is definitely a lot of convenience to this. Within the community, there is talk of how it could become an online portal for me to keep track of news updates, make friends, etc. If I’m a Burning Man executive, it makes it easier to make educated decisions on crowd control related issues (“how many port-o-potties will we need this year?”). And when things go sour, it could help Burning Man cooperate with law enforcement– if “Sky Phoenix” commits domestic assault on the playa and nobody knows how to find him, there’s a chance law enforcement could consult the profiles system and bring on due process. That might freak out some people, but it does create a system of accountability in many ways– assuming, of course, there’s a proper security audit. According to one blog comment, there’s also the perceived benefit of being able to keep up with playa friends off the playa. Whether or not these are *actually* Burning Man’s plans, people seem to be confusing “Burner Profile” with “Facebook Profile” and drawing conclusions.

Now then, some of the downsides. I saw quite a few of the crazies coming out and saying Burning Man is trying to use this to track people, and even spy on them. My response to that is that perhaps they should get involved as a volunteer, wherein they will discover the Org is spending enough time trying to make things happen, that there is no time left to be a secret police or whatever. There’s a concern I actually agree with a bit more, in that keeping a dataset like this does create an opportunity for law enforcement or government subpoena. I can’t predict when or why that would happen, but given the political climate we’re living in– ask Google or Facebook how many subpoenas they get– it’s inevitable.

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On to the primary reason I don’t like it, will not use it, and it may impact my decisions on whether to ever return to Burning Man (I’ve been four times). The mandatory collection of legal names, IMHO, sets a dangerous precedent for a community hitherto known for its autonomy and “freedom.” As one of the creators of NymRights, I’ve been watching closely as a number of online social networking sites (Google, Facebook, etc) have forced a rigid naming standard onto their user base. While I understand that, as a company, either of them has the ability to lawfully set policies and terms of service as they desire, there’s a more general social loss when naming standards of any type are forced upon a people.

When I have spoken publicly on identity issues, I often cite stories from Genesis, such as Adam naming the animals and the Tower of Babel: the former demonstrates that by creating names and labels for animals, Adam establishes a power dynamic over them, often cited as Adamic language wherein the true name of God exists; the latter explores an angry Old Testament God/YHWH, bitter that people are trying to become His equal, who responds by destroying the language gestalt everyone has and removing peoples abilities to talk with each other, thus ending the efforts of Babel. While those are fables from thousands of years ago, I think their meanings still hold relevance: language is an inherent part of how we perceive and interact with the world, and the language we use to define ourselves, our names, creates in many ways a core of our own identity.So imagine my dismay when not only did I see mandatory legal names on the Profiles page, but also saw the framing of “First Name” and “Last Name.” I feel that both the mythology that defines a culture and the language used to teach it are crucial to understanding beyond a cursory and playful dabble what “we” are really all about. When we bring the outside doctrine of legal names into the fold, in my opinion there is a culture and context clash which, while it may not be evident at first, can create a dynamic in which an identity that many Burners (and others) have created for themselves over many years is suddenly cast aside and devalued. While I understand that our current “real life” culture is so broken that most people are unaware that such contexts could even exist, I have higher hopes for people who create one of the most important events for self-exploration of which I am aware.

Do we tell new Burners that their “playa name” is a joke, and that its the name on their ID that actually matters? What kind of culture will that breed in five or ten years? Will it continue to creatively redefine all kinds of beautiful things, or fold back into the pale of “how things are supposed to be?” This is my chief concern. I don’t expect many people to understand this, especially not law enforcement or “muggles”, but I hope that within the Burning Man Org, there may be someone who can listen.

Responses to aestetix’s opening salvo have been similarly civil, but point out some of the more specific concerns with the Burner Profiles system, such as lack of SSL encryption, the involvement of a third party for gathering and storing the data and subsequent lack of control of the dataset generated, and a weak privacy policy regarding data protection in general. Also of some concern is the fact that the privacy policy doesn’t mention legal matters (subpoenas, etc.) except to say that the Org will respond to any that come up, without spelling out what notifications might be granted the user in such an instance, nor does it deal with what happens to the data that is stored with a 3rd party or the accountability standards that that party is held to with respect to this data.

The Profiles FAQ states:

Q: Who stores my information?

A: Your data will be stored by Black Rock City LLC.

Which is not true; the data is being stored by a third party.

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All in all, fears of Orwellian data manipulation on the part of the Org seem rather silly and can be safely discounted. . . but the Burner Profiles scheme is also looking terribly, terribly half-baked, like the lottery system that preceded it and the hastily-applied patches the Org came up with when the lottery went wrong.

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4 comments on “Burner Profiles Controversy Politely Heats Up

  1. No concern by the BOrg. Their information is not in the database. …”Let them eat cake like we do.”

  2. Who cares if people put their tickets on Stubhub, there are going to THOUSANDS of extra tickets for sell a few weeks before the event starts.

  3. And hey wow! As of early this afternoon, StubHub has already got several hundred Burning Man 2013 tickets for sale!

    FAIL.

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