City Library Adopts Controversial RFID Chips

Friday October 10, 2003

Berkeley librarians insist that embedding their books with a state-of-the-art monitoring device despised by privacy advocates will not grant Big Brother a glimpse at patron’s reading material. 

“We’re not going to fight the Patriot Act this hard and then just give away information,” said Berkeley Director of Library Services Jackie Griffin, who added that, after careful study, she planned to purchase Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID) before next June. 

The technology replaces magnetic bar codes that need to be scanned by hand with a microchip often as small as a grain of sand that sends radio waves picked up remotely by a scanner. Because each object can be traced by a unique code, businesses and libraries have lauded the technology as a way to prevent theft and better manage inventory. 

In June, Wal-Mart asked its top 100 suppliers to attach RFID chips to the cartons they ship to company warehouses. But, a month later, the retailer canceled an experiment to embed the chips into consumer packages of Gillette products, in part due to concerns lodged by privacy rights groups. 

“The current position of industry is to gloss over privacy issues,” said Lee Tien, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation. He said he feared that if the chips were eventually planted in clothes, books and other goods, scanner-equipped police could have more clues to identify people. 

But Griffin said RFID chips used by the library posed no privacy risk because the chips store only enough memory to read a library bar code for the book. “There would be no way to attach the information to a person,” she said. 

Even if someone had a scanner, she added, the spy would need the library’s software and book codes—and even then all he would get would be the name of the book, not any information on the person checking it out. 

“It would be more effective to follow someone around,” she said, than to use a scanner to pick up the frequency. 

Griffin envisions RFID revolutionizing library checkouts. Instead of waiting on long lines for librarians to zap the bar code, with RFID patrons could easily check out materials themselves by stacking as many as six books on a RFID radio frequency sensor and inserting their library card into a scanner. The radio frequency would reach only about a foot, she said, to protect against possible spies with scanners and prevent unwanted books near the sensor from inadvertently getting checked out.  

The technology, which Griffin estimates will cost about $600,000 to implement, will save the library money by cutting down on theft. On average the library loses about 700 volumes a year because its magnetic security system is only about 80 percent accurate. RFID is nearly 100 percent accurate and if the thief runs past security, the library won’t try to recover the book, Griffin said, but at least librarians will know which book was stolen so they can replace it. 

Karen Rollin Duffy, Director of Library Services for the city of Santa Clara, recommends the system, which she said had dramatically reduced thefts in the two years since her library became the first and only one in California to implement RFID. 

More important to Griffin than security is the health of her librarians, who have to manually check out approximately 1.3 million items annually. 

“The repetitive motion is causing incredible damage to the staff,” said Griffin, and several librarians have developed carpal tunnel syndrome. With RFID, Griffin envisions assigning just one librarian to the checkout line, while others are put into more direct public service. 

However, privacy advocates fear the technology’s short-term productivity gain will result in long-term privacy losses. 

“You don’t need to be personally identified to have your privacy violated,” said Beth Givens, a former librarian who serves as Director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. She said that in a world where RFID tags were commonplace, police could tag RFID markers in the clothing or books of citizens attending political protests. Although the information would not by itself identify specific individuals, she said it would give police additional information to link protesters to the event. 

Tien acknowledged that presently the technology isn’t advanced or pervasive enough to pose wide threats to privacy, but cautions that without rigorous analysis it could soon be too late to stop RFID scanning.  

“It’s a folly to base all expressed privacy concerns based on how they are today. They will get better,” he said. Once stronger scanners and more powerful chips are on the market, he added, the system will already have some measure of social acceptance and it will be too late to stop it. 

Tien fears that libraries—with their reputation for upholding privacy rights—will serve as the gateway for RFID manufacturers. 

“Libraries can be the poster children for RFID. People will think if they’re OK here, they’re OK anywhere else,” he said. 

Griffin said that inside the library RFID would actually benefit privacy. For patrons like a teenager exploring his sexuality or an adult facing bankruptcy who are embarrassed by their reading choices, RFID will allow them to withdraw books without a librarian seeing their selections, she said. 

Griffin said she doesn’t take privacy concerns lightly and explored various scenarios with the four companies she is considering as suppliers of the chips, making sure they’re aware that Berkeley residents are sensitive to privacy concerns. 

“I think we have been responsible,” she said. “If someone says we overlooked a huge issue, we’ll look at it.”