Berkeley Daily Planet
July 26, 2005


By Wanda Crow

The installation of radio frequency identification devices in the
Berkeley Public Library is a complex issue that deserves everybody's
attention. The devices are comprised of an antenna and a microchip
embedded in a 2x2 inch square tag. The microchip contains information
and the antenna conveys this information to readers/scanners/sensors
that are within a distance of 18 inches.

Often described as promiscuous, the tags will "talk" to any reader.
So, if you were to borrow a book from the Central Branch and then walk
into the Ross Dress for Less Store a block away, the readers in the
security gates at the door will read whatever information is on the
microchip that is embedded in your library book. Privacy, health,
labor and costs issues come with the application of RFID in libraries.

Privacy advocacy groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and
the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are opposed to RFID in
libraries because its application is new and untested. Both groups are
convinced that the privacy of library users will be compromised. For
more information you can visit their websites at and

Health issues and RFID have to do with unknown heath risks associated
with the low-frequency radio waves that the sensors/readers/scanners
emit (the gates at the entrance of libraries are readers). Doug
Loranger from the San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna Free Union
(SNAFU) tells us that there are studies emerging showing that there
are "potential risks to public health posed by the radiation used by
RFID wireless scanners." You can read more on this in a letter that
Doug wrote to the editor of this paper in the Feb. 18. Breast Cancer
Research in San Francisco is also opposed to RFID in libraries because
of potential health risks associated with radio frequency. These
concerns are well worth examining in an increasingly automated world.

The labor issues have to do with the ultimate goal of the RFID
industry: a fully automated library system using RFID to track its
materials. This means conveyor belts, automated book sorters and self-
check machines. Presently, people transport library materials from the
book drop room, sort the books and then shelve them. When automation
does everything except shelve the books, the variety of tasks narrows
and the chance of repetitive stress injuries increases. It should be
noted here that the RFID industry boasts, without any backing
evidence, that it reduces repetitive stress injuries. In fact, it will
reduce the variety of tasks and eventually workers themselves.

The issues of costs are plenty. The initial cost was $650,000,
$500,000 of which was loaned to the library to be paid back over the
next five years. This price tag just covers the supplies and equipment
for installation. What is not included is the labor used to install
tags and to modify library space to accommodate the new system. We
don't know how much it will cost the library to maintain RFID. Tags
costs at least 50 cents apiece, and then there's the imminent
improvements since it is a new and untested technology. Checkpoint,
the company that the library contracted with, owns the RFID system as
"proprietary software." They can charge whatever they want for
upgrades and, should Checkpoint go bankrupt, the library will have to
start over from square one and pay who-knows-what to a brand new
vendor! Important note: two recent financial publications (SmartMoney,
August 2005 and the insiders' posted Sept.
27, 2004) doubt that RFID will be a "meaningful revenue generator,"
and out of eight new "hot" technologies, one of the four to avoid is
RFID: "high costs of implementation; bar-coding works just fine."
(SmartMoney, Aug. 25.) The public had no input into this purchase nor
was the precautionary principle used.

I guess this is a good time for two reminders to our gentle readers:
first, Berkeley is famous for its Free Speech Movement and the
progressive and left politics that came out of that movement. Right
now the Berkeley Public Library is not reflecting this rich cultural
history. Secondly, under the current presidency, progressive thought
and action is under attack. Homeland Security's primary mission is a
surveillance infrastructure, and Berkeley Public Library is now part
of it.

Lee Tien of EFF and Peter Warfield of the Library Users Association
explore all of these issues in specifics in three informative
commentaries published in the Daily Planet:

** "RFID Should be Canceled Immediately," March 4-7 edition.

** "RFID: Many Problems, Little Public Discussion," April 8-11 edition.

** "Industry's Gain, Library's Pain," May 10-12 edition.

Hopefully you would find these articles and websites at your local
library. Get informed and attend the coming "Community Forum on RFID"
that the Board of Library Trustees has promised on Aug. 1 from 6:30-9
p.m. at the South Berkeley Seniors' Center.

The Berkeley Public Library is one of the only institutions that any
person can enter for free and walk away from richer. Its mission is to
reflect the community's culture and history. Protect the Berkeley
Public Library from technology designed to take away our freedoms and
demand that it be rejected!

Wanda Crow is a Berkeley resident.