A civil liberties watchdog group is expressing concern over a newly emerging trend in school and public library technology: tracking books by inserting computer chips into each tome.

The San Francisco Public Library became the latest to adopt the practice when library officials approved a plan Oct. 2 to install tiny radio-frequency identification chips, known as RFIDs, into the roughly 2 million books, CDs, and audiovisual materials patrons can borrow. The system still needs funding and wouldn’t be ready until at least 2005.

The microchips send electromagnetic waves to a device that converts the signal to digital information. In libraries, the system is primarily designed to locate books in branches and speed up the checkout process.

Library officials say the “passive” chips would be deactivated as materials are taken from the library, thus preventing any stealth tracking of books–and, by extension, people–off premises.

But Lee Tien, a staff lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is concerned that the chips might have information that would remain accessible and trackable, whether by ingenious hackers or law enforcement subpoena. That, he says, would be a threat to privacy rights.

“If there’s a technology for temporary deactivation, then presumably there’s a system for reactivating it,” Tien said. “Does the person have the ability to know if the RFID is on or off?”

Some of the foundation’s concerns are rooted in the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which critics have assailed as giving government the authority to obtain the records and threatening the privacy and First Amendment rights of library and bookstore patrons.

San Francisco’s city librarian, Susan Hildreth, says the devices will help streamline inventory and prevent loss. Tracking people is not the goal, she insisted.

“It will not allow us to track people to their home or any location,” Hildreth said.

She pointed out that several other major libraries, including the Seattle public library system, are moving to the chips instead of bar codes.

“Industry trends show that it’s going to replace the bar code very shortly,” Hildreth said. “We’re trying to prepare for the future.”

Seattle’s 24 libraries are installing RFID tracking systems, with the first to be ready next spring. The city of Santa Clara, Calif., also is installing RFID tracking at its main library, and the county is considering a similar move.

Other adopters of the technology include the University of Connecticut, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of Pennsylvania, according to the American Library Association.

Supporters of the technology say it vastly improves the ability of library staff to keep assets secure and take inventory. Not only are there fewer false alarms than with older technologies, but the interface to the library’s circulation system can identify exactly which items are being removed from the building.

The technology’s greatest advantage is that it can be used to scan books on the shelves without tipping them out or removing them. Using a handheld inventory reader, librarians can quickly scan a shelf of books or CDs, collecting all unique identifying information and wirelessly updating the library’s inventory–or even identifying which items are out of order.

Still, it’s the opportunity for unauthorized tracking that concerns Tien.

“The issue is other people, other institutions. What will they do if the RFID is insecure?” Tien said. “We’re talking about the imbedding of location trafficking devices into the social fabric.”

Hildreth said San Francisco library officials might hold a public forum to discuss the chips further.


American Library Association

ALA’s paper on RFID technology (Click on Tech Notes)

Electronic Frontier Foundation