Decisions about public libraries should be made publicly. But just as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in library books can be secretly read and tracked, the Berkeley Public Library (BPL) installed RFID technology with little public awareness or discussion. Indeed, it appears that BPL did not tell the library’s governing body about known problems with RFID at other libraries before RFID was approved in April 2004. We think this gives the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) ample reason to reconsider and reject RFID in Berkeley.
Our review of documents the library provided in response to our information request, and three years of BOLT agendas and minutes at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/commissions/library, shows the following:
1. RFID never appeared on any BOLT agenda for discussion or action in the three years before BOLT discussed and approved selection of the RFID vendor in
March and April 2004.
2. The issue of RFID privacy concerns appeared only once in three years of minutes. No other problems of RFID were discussed, according to the minutes.
3. There is no evidence that BOLT was told about the potential health risks of RFID, which have been raised by the EMR Policy Institute, San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna Free Union (SNAFU), and others. By contrast, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors took the potential health risks seriously in July 2004 when it refused to unconditionally fund RFID at San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) and instead required SFPL to come back in six months to explain how it would handle privacy threats and potential health risks.
4. There is no evidence that BOLT was told about RFID’s huge security weakness: that books can be taken from the library, undetected by the RFID system, if a person uses household aluminum foil to block the radio signal.
5. There is no evidence that BOLT was told about the ongoing costs of RFID-tags cost far more than bar codes and magnetic strips now in use, especially for certain non-book materials like CDs and videos.
RFID Problems Elsewhere
The library documents we obtained also show that BPL staff researched other libraries’ experience with RFID and found a host of problems. The Eugene (Ore.) Public Library reported “collision” problems on very thin materials and on videos as well as “false readings” from the RFID security gates. (Collision problems mean that two or more tags are close enough to “cancel the signals,” according to an American Library Association publication, making them undetectable by the RFID checkout and security systems.)
Many libraries reported problems with so-called “donut” RFID tags, which are flat labels with a hole in the middle for use on CDs. Three libraries said, “Donuts don’t work.” Another library said, “Many CDs have metal in them; this is a problem since RFID will not work.” Libraries also reported that donut tags did not stick to the CD and could not be read easily.
These problems with donut tags undermine one of the supposed benefits of RFID in libraries: that patron self-service check-out of CDs and videos will relieve staff of the need to remove the security cases often used with magnetic-strip security systems. Indeed, one library that implemented RFID reported that the self-service check-out rate declined from 20 percent to 15 percent—contrary to repeated claims that RFID implementation would dramatically increase self-service check-out rates.
BPL’s staff report described a multi-part problem with RFID tags at a Checkpoint Systems installation, writing that the library “is finding the metallic inks in book jackets to be a serious problem for checkout/checkin/security. Ironically, the book tagged for me in TS as a demo had metallic inks and would not self check out or set off the security gates....”
Some libraries criticized Checkpoint Systems, which is supplying Berkeley’s RFID system. One library noted, “Items added cannot be recognized by Checkpoint system for check-out/security until nightly synchronization between III [the library’s computer system] and Checkpoint.” Another library said, “Checkpoint system needs a totally separate server that must be synchronized at night. This is a bad idea.” A delay in matching the server’s records to the library’s own computer records could make it very hard to enforce borrowing limits that help make library materials available to more patrons. We have heard informally from staff that borrowing limits will not be enforced once RFID is implemented.
Did the Board of Library Trustees know about these problems? Unfortunately, the agendas and minutes do not show that RFID problems were presented or discussed in any meaningful way, or that the public had advance public notice that RFID was being considered. We therefore question the library administration’s claim that the decision to adopt RFID was a truly public process.
Finally, we note that the library’s contract with Checkpoint Systems can be canceled on 30 days’ notice for any reason or none, and with no penalty. Section 3.d. of the contract states: “If city terminates this contract for convenience before Contractor completes the services in Exhibit A, Contractor shall then be entitled to recover its costs expended up to that point plus a reasonable profit, but no other loss, cost, damage, expense or liability may be claimed, requested, or recovered.”
We think the library should cancel this RFID implementation and stick with a system that has worked well and cheaply for many years. The many issues associated with RFID—serious privacy threats, potential health risks, a big security hole, many technical problems, lack of interoperability among vendors, and potentially high operational costs—make the use of RFID at BPL a very bad idea.
Peter Warfield is executive director and co-founder of the Library Users Association. Lee Tien is a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a long-time Berkeley resident.