Election Section

Commentary: Industry’s Gain, Library’s Pain By PETER WARFIELD and LEE TIEN

Tuesday May 10, 2005

When opponents of library use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology testified at Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission meeting in March, 2005, one of the commissioners repeatedly asked whether the industry was using this library in particular, or libraries in general, to promote RFID. A letter sent by a major book industry group to members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors last summer shows that the answer is a resounding yes. 

Worse yet, the book industry group wants to use libraries as guinea pigs to test RFID. 


Immature Technology 

While acknowledging that RFID “is still an immature technology, lacking in essential capability and standards,” the letter’s author, James Lichtenberg, board member of the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) and chair of its New Technology Committee, nevertheless urged funding of RFID at San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) so that libraries can “make a contribution to maintaining our free and open society as we embrace new and untested technologies.” 


Civil Liberties at Risk 

Chillingly, the letter’s fundamental argument for why libraries and library patrons should become RFID guinea pigs is that industry will not act responsibly: “for libraries to abandon the field now would leave the development of RFID essentially in the hands of commercial and defense interests where ‘national security’ and the profit motive often overshadow concerns for civil liberty.” 

Indeed, Lichtenberg warns that the future of RFID technology may well lead to “ubiquitous ignoble use of RFID for surveillance and invasion of citizens’ rights.” 

In short, the letter says libraries should buy RFID because industry and government cannot be trusted to protect our privacy and civil liberties. 


Buy Now, Change Later 

Lichtenberg is right that industry and government want to use RFID for surveillance. But that’s precisely why it is sheer chutzpah for the commercial interests he represents to promote RFID by holding out the false hope that libraries, by buying RFID systems today, “ultimately will make the technology itself stronger and safer as it matures and its implementation broadens.” 

The truth is, libraries would lose any leverage they might have by buying RFID now and seeking changes afterwards. Once libraries have bought into RFID, why should industry change its ways? 

Rather than changing the RFID product, it is far more likely that the book industry wants to use the good will of libraries to put a friendly face on RFID, in order to make RFID technology more palatable to the public. After all, the BISG letter provides no specifics about how libraries that make the expensive plunge into RFID and convert their collections to its use would “be leaders in the exploration of RFID use”—or about how libraries’ privacy concerns would affect the wealthy RFID or book industry and its products.  

The New York-based BISG counts among its members “the entire publishing value chain,” including “authors, publishers, printers, distributors, technologists, consultants, retailers and of course libraries.” 

BISG officers include management officials of publishers Barnes and Noble, Random House, and John Wiley & Sons, according to the group’s website. 


Business Hopes 

Lichtenberg’s letter is clear about the hoped-for benefits to the business interests he serves. It says, “RFID holds out a promise to create greater efficiency and significantly take cost out of any supply chain, ours included....” 

Unfortunately, BISG has already significantly influenced policy at the American Library Association, which issued its “Resolution on Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology and Privacy Principles” in January 2005 with repeated, explicit references to BISG—and an endorsement of BISG’s inadequate “Privacy Principles” statement. 


Carrot and Stick 

Lichtenberg’s letter reveals corporate interests are using a carrot-and-stick approach to sell “untested” RFID technology to government and library decisionmakers. 

The stick is the thinly veiled, very real threat that RFID will usher in an age of ubiquitous surveillance in the near, if not immediate, future. The carrot is the vain hope that libraries can save society from that dystopian future. 

Libraries and library users should not let themselves become test subjects for this “immature” technology—especially when they must pay heavily for the privilege and cannot easily escape once they sign up. Who listens to guinea pigs, anyway? 


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.