Library Workers, Patrons Denounce RFID System By MATTHEW ARTZ

Friday August 05, 2005

More than 100 people filled the South Berkeley Senior Center Monday to debate the Berkeley Public Library’s practice of placing radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs) in books.  

The library has already begun installing the $650,000 system, replacing bar codes on book covers with radio antennas. The forum, hosted by KQED’s Keven Guillory, featured dozens of library users and staff members who denounced the use of the devices. 

The palm-sized RFID tags hold the promise of allowing patrons to check out all their materials at once by swiping the pile of books over an electronic reader. By increasing self check-out, library management believes it can boost staff efficiency and dedicate more time to serving patrons away from checkout lines. 

But some opponents charge that as scanners become more powerful and widespread, the technology will allow authorities to trace not just books, but library patrons as well. Others said they worried that the low level radio frequencies emitted by the tags might cause cancer. 

The union representing library workers came out Monday in opposition to the technology. In a memo from SEIU Local 535, the workers argued that the system might create more work for librarians, risk worker health, and possibly eliminate jobs. 

Every member of the public who spoke Monday opposed the technology.  

The library approved the system last year, and RFID checkout stations have already debuted at some branches. The system is not fully implemented, and during Monday’s forum Paul Simon of Checkpoint Systems, the library’s New Jersey-based vendor, acknowledged equipment failure at the Claremont Branch. 

Library Board Trustee Terry Powell said the library will continue implementing RFID, but wouldn’t shut the door on dismantling it even though the vendor has already been paid. “We’re still looking at the issues,” she said. 

Local opposition to RFID was minuscule when the library board unanimously approved it two years ago. But opposition has swelled this year as privacy advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation urged the city to reject RFIDs and a public feud between library workers and Director Jackie Griffin brought the issue to the forefront. 

RFIDs emit a low-range radio frequency that can be picked up by a specially designed scanner. The scanner can only read the code for the library material. To connect the code to the actual book title, the code would have to be cross-referenced with the library’s catalogue. 

While the system doesn’t pose much of a privacy risk now, Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation warned government and business interests were pushing the technology and that over time scanners will likely be installed in convenience stores, malls, and airports, making the library book code a valuable piece of information for authorities trying to track citizens. 

“Big money wants to sell RFID chips to manage information...And the government wants that information, too,” he said. 

Tien’s group helped stop the installation of RFIDs in the San Francisco Public Library. Currently they are fighting to keep RFIDs out of U.S. passports and state identification cards. 

David Mulnar, a UC graduate student who has researched privacy concerns relating to RFID and worked with the library, said Berkeley has so far avoided mistakes made in other communities. For instance at the Cesar Chavez branch library in Oakland, the RFID code was merely the inverse of the bar code, which would make it easier for authorities to figure out materials checked out by library patrons. 

Simon acknowledged that there were privacy concerns with RFID, but said that library users need not worry that their reading materials might be uncovered by interlopers lurking with RFID readers.  

A six-foot antenna (which costs approximately $1,000) is required to read a Berkeley library RFID chip from three feet away, he said. Addressing audience concerns, he said Checkpoint RFID tags did not contain memory for additional information besides the book code and contained no heavy metals. Simon also insisted that Checkpoint was in sound fiscal health and would not go out of business, leaving the city stuck with no one to service the technology. 

City Councilmember Gordon Wozniak, a retired physicist formerly with Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, battled audience members over whether the chips presented a health risk. Wozniak said RFIDs emit a safe frequency that is higher than AM radio, but lower than FM radio. 

“We’ve been exposed to these frequencies for a long time,” he said, adding that recent studies showed no links between exposures to the radio waves and health risks. Audience members questioned whether the cumulative impact of radio waves might be connected to rising cancer rates. 

Almost as controversial as the technology was the composition of the panel. Scheduling conflicts kept a representative of the ACLU from attending. That left the first panel with Simon from vendor Checkpoint Systems, Wozniak, an RFID supporter, and Mulnar. 

Councilmember Kriss Worthington demanded another public forum with a more balanced panel. 

“How many people think this was an equal amount of passion from both sides?” he asked the audience. After the meeting Councilmember Darryl Moore, who also sits on the library’s board or trustees, accused Worthington of grandstanding. 

“To besmirch the board [by saying] that we didn’t make it balanced is unfair,” he said. 

As has become commonplace at library meetings, Griffin, the library’s director, was singled out for attack by a feisty audience angry that the public forum on RFID came after its implementation. 

“You came in here and got some cabal to do this and didn’t even tell people about it...How do I take you to court? How do I make you give us our democracy back?” said Nancy Delaney of Berkeleyans Organizing For Library Defense (BOLD), an anti-RFID group.  

Griffin did not speak during the meeting. 

When Delaney’s comments were greeted with cheers, library Trustee Ying Lee rose to Griffin’s defense, but failed to quiet the crowd. 

“Personally I’m extremely uncomfortable when a large number of people attack a single person with a different point of view,” she said. 

“They need to respect our point of view,” said a man in the audience. “You’re backing [Griffin],” another audience member yelled. Seconds later several shouts of “Bullshit” rang out in the senior center from critics of Griffin.