Rfids on sanfransisco library books
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Posted on Fri, Mar. 05, 2004
S.F. library officials grilled on plan to put trackers in books
SAN FRANCISCO - San Francisco library officials hosted a public forum Thursday to hash out the thorny issue of radio frequency identification tags - small, paper-thin devices known as RFIDs that the city librarian wants to put in books to improve inventory control.
Critics of the idea say there are serious privacy concerns about exactly what information would be contained on the tags and how secure the devices would be. They fear third parties, bored hackers or the federal government might find a way to surreptitiously find out who's reading what.
"Privacy is really the handmaiden of the First Amendment," said Ann Brick, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. Brick stressed that while libraries are historically trustworthy about protecting with patron information, the prying technology of others may not be so kind.
"It's the rest of the world that we're really worried about," Brick said.
Several large city libraries throughout the United States use RFIDs for inventory control. And retailers are increasingly adopting the technology to streamline their operations and cut down on theft.
The system that the San Francisco library envisions would identify which items were checked out to whom, and then special gates installed at the exit doors would detect whether the book had physically left the premises.
Kathy Lawhun, chief of the city's main library and a proponent of the RFID proposal, described the technology as benign by design.
"RFID is simply a chip with an antenna," Lawhun said. "You can have as little or as much as you want on that chip."
San Francisco library administrators insist the information that would be contained on the RFID chip would be the same that currently exists on the barcode system.
Others at the forum raised concerns about whether adding RFIDs to the many radio-powered devices that have proliferated throughout the city, such as cell phones, could cause health problems for their users. At that point city librarian Susan Hildreth held up her main library access card dangling around her neck, containing similar technology.
"We have it by our chest everyday. We're not dead yet," Hildreth said to chuckles from the panel.
Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it's not the power of the chip, but those who would choose to exploit such devices in the future, that should be of concern.
"Now is the time to seriously worry about the government using RFIDs to track people," Tien told those in attendance.
Insecure RFIDs, which retain data that can be linked to personal information, are a danger, Tien argued.
"Insecure RFIDs ... make secret things possible," he added.
San Francisco's RFID plan still must pass muster with the mayor's office, the board of supervisors and the city's seven-member library commission.
RFID-enabled devices are expected to abound as the cost of RFID readers go down. Stockholm-based Cypak, AB Tuesday that it has developed a disposable computer made of a small RFID tag and printable sensors on paperboard.
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