Commentary: Library Forum on RFID Revealed Threats to Privacy, Health By WANDA CROW

Tuesday August 30, 2005

Here are some of the things that I learned at the Aug. 1 “community forum” on radio frequency identification devices (RFID) sponsored by the Board of Library Trustees: Patrons’ reading materials cannot be protected from prying eyes, and anyone can buy a reader/scanner for $150. I learned that there are many studies showing that radiation from radio frequency poses a threat to public health, and I discovered that Councilmember Gordon Wozniak studied none of these before he became an expert panelist for the forum. Moreover, Checkpoint (the RFID company that the library contracted with) is negligent in repairing its equipment, and the Berkeley Public Library and its board were, and continue to be, even more negligent in researching the claims of RFID’s efficacy in reducing both repetitive stress injuries and theft of library materials. As well I learned that Checkpoint is not a new company, but one that’s been around since the 1960s. 

The most informative panelist was Lee Tien, senior attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization concerned with privacy on the Internet and in technology. Among other things, he reminded us that corporations could benefit from our personal information without being held accountable for what happens to that information. His organization played a strong role in the rejection of RFID at the San Francisco Public Library, the rejection of RFID in student IDs at a school here in California and it continues to fight the application of RFID in U.S. passports. 

There were many more experts in the audience. During public question/comment period, we heard from two representatives from the union, two members from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), two health experts from San Francisco Neighborhood Antennae Free Union and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, one library advocate from the San Francisco Library Users Association and those unrelenting members of BOLD, Berkeleyans Organized for Library Defense. Every expert was opposed to RFID. This opposition provided much of the information that night. 

And here is what I saw in the community: I saw citizens exercising their First Amendment rights without apology. They used their Intellectual Freedom and researched their topic at their local public library and then discussed it in a forum. They made sure that the board and the director of the Berkeley Public Library heard them loud and clear—a forum after the purchase of this technology erodes a public trust that seems to be low on the priority list of the library’s director and board. There were on the order of 50 people who walked up to the mike, and every one of them was opposed to RFID. I also saw board members who seemed impatient with this tedious democratic process and two of them felt the need to lecture the citizens as if they were children. Watch for the forum on Channel 33!  

Here are other ways for readers to inform themselves about this harmful technology: Electronic Frontier Foundation is at www.eff.org; SuperBOLD is at www.libraryadvocates.org; for health effects of radio frequency, www.wave-guide.org; for recordings of the forum you can go to www.sfbayvideo.com or call 644-2489. 

One speaker called it a boondoggle. He has a point. If it doesn’t fix repetitive stress injuries and doesn’t reduce theft (but in fact increases it) then WHAT is it good for? Another lesson from the forum—RFID is good for two things:surveillance and corporate profit and all at the expense of public trust, worker safety and patron privacy. Is it too much for the board to admit that it made a mistake, and, if they can truly rise to the occasion—get rid of the problem?  


Wanda Crow is a Berkeley resident.