Patrons Denounce RFID System" by staff writer Matthew
Berkeley Daily Planet Weekend Edition August 5-8, 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
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
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
“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
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
“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.
"Industry;s Gain, Library's
Pain" by Peter Warfield and Lee Tien
Berkeley Daily Planet Weekend Edition May 10-12 2005
When opponents of library use of radio-frequency identification (RFID)
technology testified at Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission
meeting in March, 2005, one of the commissioners repeatedly asked whether
the industry was using this library in particular, or libraries in general,
to promote RFID. A letter sent by a major
book industry group to members of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors
last summer shows that the answer is a resounding yes.
Worse yet, the book industry group wants to use libraries as guinea
pigs to test RFID.Immature Technology
While acknowledging that RFID “is
still an immature technology, lacking in essential capability and standards,”
the letter’s author, James Lichtenberg, board member of the Book
Industry Study Group (BISG) and chair of its New Technology Committee,
nevertheless urged funding of RFID at San
Francisco Public Library (SFPL) so that libraries can “make a
contribution to maintaining our free and open society as we embrace
new and untested technologies.”Civil Liberties at Risk
Chillingly, the letter’s fundamental argument for why libraries
and library patrons should become RFID guinea pigs is that industry will not act responsibly: “for libraries
to abandon the field now would leave the development of RFID essentially in the hands of commercial and defense interests where ‘national
security’ and the profit motive often overshadow concerns for
Indeed, Lichtenberg warns that the future of RFID technology may well lead to “ubiquitous ignoble use of RFID for surveillance and invasion of citizens’ rights.” In short,
the letter says libraries should buy RFID because industry and government cannot be trusted to protect our privacy
and civil liberties.Buy Now, Change Later.
Lichtenberg is right that industry and government want to use RFID for surveillance. But that’s precisely why it is sheer
chutzpah for the commercial interests he represents to promote RFID by holding out the false hope that libraries, by buying RFID systems today, “ultimately will make the technology
itself stronger and safer as it matures and its implementation broadens.”
The truth is, libraries would lose any leverage they might have by buying RFID now and seeking changes afterwards.
Once libraries have bought into RFID, why
should industry change its ways? Rather than changing the RFID product, it is far more likely that the book industry wants to use the
good will of libraries to put a friendly face on RFID,
in order to make RFID technology more palatable
to the public. After all, the BISG letter provides no specifics about
how libraries that make the expensive plunge into RFID and convert their collections to its use would “be
leaders in the exploration of RFID use”—or
about how libraries’ privacy concerns would affect the wealthy RFID or book industry and its products.
The New York-based BISG counts among its members “the entire publishing
value chain,” including “authors, publishers, printers,
distributors, technologists, consultants, retailers and of course libraries.”
BISG officers include management officials of publishers Barnes and
Noble, Random House, and John Wiley & Sons, according to the group’s
website. Business hopes Lichtenberg’s letter is clear about the
hoped-for benefits to the business interests he serves. It says, “RFID holds out a promise to create greater efficiency and significantly take
cost out of any supply chain, ours included....”
Unfortunately, BISG has already significantly influenced policy at the
American Library Association, which issued its “Resolution on
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) Technology
and Privacy Principles” in January 2005 with repeated, explicit
references to BISG—and an endorsement of BISG’s inadequate
“Privacy Principles” statement. Carrot and Stick Lichtenberg’s
letter reveals corporate interests are using a carrot-and-stick approach
to sell “untested” RFID technology to government and library
decision makers. The stick is the thinly veiled, very real threat that RFID will usher in an age of ubiquitous
surveillance in the near, if not immediate, future. The carrot is the
vain hope that libraries can save society from that dystopian future.
Libraries and library users should not let themselves become test subjects
for this “immature” technology—especially when they
must pay heavily for the privilege and cannot easily escape once they
sign up. Who listens to guinea pigs, anyway?
Peter Warfield is executive director and co-founder of the Library
Users Association. Lee Tien is a senior staff attorney for the Electronic
Frontier Foundation and a long-time Berkeley resident.
"RFID Should Be Canceled
Immediately", by Peter Warfield and Lee Tien
Berkeley Daily Planet Weekend Edition March 4 -7, 2005
Berkeley is becoming the poster child for the Brave New World of radio
frequency identification (RFID) tracking
tags in library materials, and helping to legitimize a potential billion-dollar RFID industry—unless citizens take
action to stop it. A piece in the jigsaw puzzle of the surveillance
society is now being installed at public expense at the Berkeley Public
Library—with little public discussion beforehand and a library
administration selling it with information that is incomplete, misleading,
and at times simply wrong.
In late December 2004, Library Users Association and the Electronic
Frontier Foundation (EFF) jointly requested documents from the library
about the costs and benefits of RFID. In
particular, we wanted to examine the library’s repeated claims
that repetitive stress injuries (RSI) have cost the library significant
amounts of money and that RFID would cut those costs. While the library
responded to our request with less information than we expected, the
documents that we did receive tell a markedly different story than that
presented by the library administration.
What the library trustees were told: In December 2003, Board of Library
Trustees (BOLT) President Laura Anderson asked if the RFID system “would result in savings.” Library director Jackie
Griffin responded that “the library spent about $1 million in
direct costs for workers’ compensation claims for the past five
years, mostly due to repetitive motion injuries. This technology should
result in a significant decrease in injuries and associated costs.”
(BOLT Minutes, Dec. 10, 2003)
What the documents show: The documents provided by the library do not
support the library director’s response.
1. For the five years ending June 30, 2003, the library spent $642,161
on all workers’ compensation claims. All RSI-related claims totaled
$167,871, just 26 percent of the five-year total.
2. In the five-year period 1995-2000, the library spent $1,079,807 on
all workers’ compensation claims—but just $4,009 on RSI
claims, or less than 1 percent of the total.
3. In the seven-year period 1998-2004, RSI claims accounted for 19 percent
of the library’s workers’ compensation costs ($167,871 out
4. Since 2001, the library’s total worker’s compensation
claims and its RSI claims have declined steadily. Indeed, for fiscal
year 2004 the library spent only $10,548 on workers’ compensation
claims and zero on RSI claims.
Simply put, the documents we received from the library contradict the
library’s claims that RSI is a major financial burden. Nor do
the documents support the library’s claim that the new RFID system will significantly decrease RSI injuries. The logic here is that
using RFID will eliminate repetitive motions
associated with using bar code scanners to check books in and out. But
we see no evidence that the library’s RSI injuries were caused
by bar code scanners, which have been used for years. There were no
RSI claims in 1998, 2000, and 2004, and only one RSI claim worth $1,008
Even if all of the library’s RSI problems were caused by bar code
scanners, the savings afforded by an RFID system costing at least $643,000 (for which the library took out a $500,000
loan costing $52,360 in interest over five years) are minimal at best.
Moreover, the library has never explained why other, cheaper mitigating
measures, such as rotating employees more often between tasks, are inadequate.
Reassurances from the library administration and BOLT President Laura
Anderson (Daily Planet, Feb. 25) that RFID poses no privacy threat are as unsupported as library claims about RSI.
Unlike bar codes, RFID tags can be read
secretly through clothing, book bags or briefcases by anyone with the
appropriate reader device. There are various ways to associate a book
title and bar code, both with AND WITHOUT access to the library’s
database. Furthermore, tracking where you go with a tagged item requires
only the ability to read its tag. Therefore, retailers, individuals,
and government agencies armed with RFID portable or doorway scanners will have the potential to figure out what
you are reading, where you go with the material, and when.
To some, this may sound like science fiction, and we hope it stays that
way. But every month we read about some new high-tech method for invading
privacy, while our current reliance on massive computerized databases
of personal information has brought us an epidemic of identity theft
and data “spills.” The lesson? The surveillance society
will not be built in a day by evil people. It will be built because
we accept privacy-invading technologies for supposed short-term convenience,
ignoring the long-term social costs.
Have no doubt about it: the soul of the public library as an open forum
for ideas and information, free from the threat of spying and potential
chilling effects, is under attack from the RFID implementation happening now at the library. Berkeley should not spend
its library dollars on a technology that Big Brother would love. This
implementation should end, now.
Peter Warfield is executive director and co-founder of Library Users
Association. Lee Tien is a senior staff attorney for the Electronic
Frontier Foundation and a long-time Berkeley resident.
"San Francisco Rejects
RFID" staff writer Matthew Artz
Berkeley Daily Planet Weekend Edition July 5-7, 2005
The controversial radio devices coming to Berkeley this August won’t
be arriving in San Francisco anytime soon.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget Committee voted 4-1 Thursday
to reject the library’s request for $680,000 to begin phasing
in the technology.
With two anti-RFID supervisors not on the
committee, RFID opponents appear to have
a majority of the 11-member board of supervisors. “This vote will
have far reaching implications,” said Peter Warfield of the anti-RFID Library Users Association. “I think the more people learn about RFID the more they understand how bad it
RFID is a hi-tech alternative to the traditional
library bar code. Instead of a code, RFID’s
are palm sized radio antennas that emit a frequency read by specially
The technology, used in numerous types of industries, is advertised
to boost self check-out rates at libraries to 90 percent, thereby freeing
staff to perform other jobs. But privacy advocates, including the American
Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, fear the
devices could ultimately be used to track library patrons rather than
"Library Bristles At Patriot
Act" by Al Winslow, Special to the Planet
Berkeley Daily Planet Weekend Edition August 9, 2005
Each night, the computer at Berkeley's downtown library erases everything
that happened that day on its 50 Internet terminals. Titles of several
thousand or so books returned that day disappear from the borrower's
record. Once a month, the names of anyone who took out a particular
book, whether "Winnie the Pooh" or "Das Capital,"
vanish as well.
Regular record-purging is part of the library's defiance of the supposedly
anti-terrorist U.S. Patriot Act, which lets the FBI and other agencies
freely investigate the reading habits of library users. The FBI sent
a speaker to a library panel discussion in February but so far hasn't
asked to see any records, library director Jackie Griffin said in an
interview this week. If they do, she said, "I would have to consult
with the city attorney and decide, according to the circumstances, what
“I don't want to spit in their eye, but if they serve me with
a subpoena, I certainly have the support of my board of directors, my
staff and the city, not to honor it," Griffin said. Resistance
to the Patriot Act — which opponents say does more damage to civil
liberties than it does to terrorists — has been increasing.
A survey of 1,500 libraries completed in February by the University
of Illinois, reported that 444 had been approached for information by
the FBI or other agencies. Some 219 libraries cooperated and 225 refused,
the survey said.
Nationwide, 91 communities, including Berkeley, have passed resolutions
urging municipal employees and residents not to cooperate with government
inquiries that violate civil liberties. Similar resolutions have been
passed in Oakland, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, San Francisco and Mill
Valley. Some 83 congressmen, including Rep. Barbara Lee (D-9th District),
now are cosponsoring the Freedom to Read Protection Act, introduced
in March by Rep. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.)
Sen. Orrin Hatch, (R-Utah), the Patriot Act's staunchest supporter,
recently withdrew a measure that would make the act permanent. It is
now due to expire in 2005. Running 342 pages and titled the "Uniting
and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to
Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act", the Patriot Act was passed
by Congress Oct. 25, 2001, six weeks after the attack on the World Trade
It passed the House 357 to 66 with nine not voting. Rep. Lee voted against
it. It passed the Senate 96 to one with three not voting. Sens. Barbara
Boxer and Diane Feinstein voted for it. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.)
cast the only "no" vote.
The act expands existing government surveillance powers by removing
certain Constitutional restraints. One provision allows the government
to secretly arrest non-citizens and hold them indefinitely without charge
or access to an attorney. In the case of libraries, it doesn't require
"probable cause" or a specific reason to ask to see records
but permits generalized searches. It makes it a crime for librarians
to report such searches.
Berkeley civil liberties lawyer Jim Chanin said, "They can get
anyone who ever used any library book and the library is prohibited
under criminal sanctions from telling anyone about it. If that's not
a definition of a police state, then I don't know what is," said
Chanin, who is past president and a current board member of the Berkeley-Albany-Richmond-Kensington
Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Other opponents, such as the Bill of Rights Defense Committee say that
even if no records are actually searched, the threat has a chilling
effect. Bowman Enrie regularly uses the library though he doesn't have
a library card. He said the government "should mind its own business
and get a clue."
Sylvia Salgado came out of the library with a sack full of books. "Yes,
I would care if they looked at my records. I came here from Colombia
28 years ago. There they can do anything — stop you when they
want, search you when they want. "Now, it’s getting like
Rages Over Library System's Future" by Al Winslow, Special
to the Planet
Berkeley Daily Planet Weekend Edition March 22-24, 2005
Gene Bernardi of Berkeleyans Organized for Library Defense said she
was collecting signatures against automation of the library’s
main branch in front of the main doors recently when she was ordered
away from the library.
According to Bernardi—whose account was confirmed by the ABC Security
guard involved—the guard came out and said she was on “library
property” and would have to move to the sidewalk. Bernardi refused
and the guard threatened to call the police. A police car did arrive
but Bernardi had relocated to the sidewalk.
Two weeks ago, the Peace and Justice Commission declined to condemn
the small radio tracking devices being installed in all the libraries
materials. Lee Tien, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
a San Francisco-based watchdog group, told the commission that the devices
now in Berkeley’s library books are similar to those that government
spy agencies intend to use for long-range tracking, placing them, for
example, in visas carried around by foreign visitors. “This is
a technology that could usher in an age of surveillance,” Tien
Mark Marrow, library general services manager, told the commission that
the devices as installed can only track a book a few feet as it goes
through a checkout reader. A resolution against the devices failed to
pass with five yes votes, five no votes, one abstention, and three absences.
Library employees have complained about a variety of issues at the library,
including the automation check out system, proposed layoffs and sagging
“In 34 years…I’ve never seen morale so low or the
staff so angry,” said library employee Anne-Marie Miller told
the trustees. Reference librarian Andrea Moss told Library Director
Jackie Griffin, “We don’t know how to have a conversation
with you and we need to.”
While the debate continues, library employees are pasting the tracking
tags on the library’s books, videos, compact discs, records and
Joseph Alvarez, a library aide for seven years, said Griffin announced
at a recent staff meeting that 200,000 of the library’s estimated
500,000 books and other materials have been tagged so far. Alvarez said
a sense of depression pervades the staff at the main library downtown.
“People are just beat and (management) contradicts itself in many
ways,” he said. “First we’re told there are going
to be layoffs and then we’re told there aren’t going to
A common sight at the library is two employees checking out materials
at the main desk while a line of waiting patrons stretches into an adjoining
room. Alvarez said Griffin wants to automate the library “and
you know who gets squeezed when that happens.”
Griffin was unavailable for comment for this article. According to the
City Charter, the library director is answerable only to the five library
trustees. The trustees are appointed by the City Council which can remove
them only by a majority vote.
Bernardi was back at her post outside the library late last week. Not
every one who signed her petition cared only about the tacking devices.
“The petition should be to have the library stay open later and
on Sunday,” said Rinaldo Pelegrino, who had a small child strapped
to his side. He said the library is rarely open when a working parent
has time to go there.
"RFID: Many Problems, Little
Public Discussion" by Peter Warfield and Lee Tien
Berkeley Daily Planet Weekend Edition April 8-11, 2005
Decisions about public libraries should be made publicly. But just as
radio frequency identification (RFID) tags
in library books can be secretly read and tracked, the Berkeley Public
Library (BPL) installed RFID technology
with little public awareness or discussion. Indeed, it appears that
BPL did not tell the library’s governing body about known problems
with RFID at other libraries before RFID was approved in April 2004. We think this gives the Board of Library
Trustees (BOLT) ample reason to reconsider and reject RFID in Berkeley.
Our review of documents the library provided in response to our information
request, and three years of BOLT agendas and minutes at www.ci.berkeley.ca.us/commissions/library,
shows the following:
1. RFID never appeared on any BOLT agenda
for discussion or action in the three years before BOLT discussed and
approved selection of the RFID vendor in March and April 2004.
2. The issue of RFID privacy concerns appeared
only once in three years of minutes. No other problems of RFID were discussed, according to the minutes.
3. There is no evidence that BOLT was told about the potential health
risks of RFID, which have been raised by
the EMR Policy Institute, San Francisco Neighborhood Antenna Free Union
(SNAFU), and others. By contrast, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors
took the potential health risks seriously in July 2004 when it refused
to unconditionally fund RFID at San Francisco
Public Library (SFPL) and instead required SFPL to come back in six
months to explain how it would handle privacy threats and potential
4. There is no evidence that BOLT was told about RFID’s huge security weakness: that books can be taken
from the library, undetected by the RFID system, if a person uses household
aluminum foil to block the radio signal.
5. There is no evidence that BOLT was told about the ongoing costs of RFID-tags cost far more than bar codes
and magnetic strips now in use, especially for certain non-book materials
like CDs and videos. RFID Problems Elsewhere
The library documents we obtained also show that BPL staff researched
other libraries’ experience with RFID and found a host of problems. The Eugene (Ore.) Public Library reported
“collision” problems on very thin materials and on videos
as well as “false readings” from the RFID security gates. (Collision problems mean that two or more tags
are close enough to “cancel the signals,” according to an
American Library Association publication, making them undetectable by
the RFID checkout and security systems.)
Many libraries reported problems with so-called “donut” RFID tags, which are flat labels with a
hole in the middle for use on CDs. Three libraries said, “Donuts
don’t work.” Another library said, “Many CDs have
metal in them; this is a problem since RFID will not work.” Libraries also reported that donut tags did not
stick to the CD and could not be read easily.
These problems with donut tags undermine one of the supposed benefits
of RFID in libraries: that patron self-service
check-out of CDs and videos will relieve staff of the need to remove
the security cases often used with magnetic-strip security systems.
Indeed, one library that implemented RFID reported that the self-service check-out rate declined from 20 percent
to 15 percent—contrary to repeated claims that RFID implementation would dramatically increase self-service check-out rates.
BPL’s staff report described a multi-part problem with RFID tags at a Checkpoint Systems installation, writing that
the library “is finding the metallic inks in book jackets to be
a serious problem for checkout/checkin/security. Ironically, the book
tagged for me in TS as a demo had metallic inks and would not self check
out or set off the security gates....”
Some libraries criticized Checkpoint Systems, which is supplying Berkeley’s RFID system. One library noted, “Items
added cannot be recognized by Checkpoint system for check-out/security
until nightly synchronization between III [the library’s computer
system] and Checkpoint.” Another library said, “Checkpoint
system needs a totally separate server that must be synchronized at
night. This is a bad idea.” A delay in matching the server’s
records to the library’s own computer records could make it very
hard to enforce borrowing limits that help make library materials available
to more patrons. We have heard informally from staff that borrowing
limits will not be enforced once RFID is
Did the Board of Library Trustees know about these problems? Unfortunately,
the agendas and minutes do not show that RFID problems were presented or discussed in any meaningful way, or that
the public had advance public notice that RFID was being considered. We therefore question the library administration’s
claim that the decision to adopt RFID was
a truly public process.
Finally, we note that the library’s contract with Checkpoint Systems
can be canceled on 30 days’ notice for any reason or none, and
with no penalty. Section 3.d. of the contract states: “If city
terminates this contract for convenience before Contractor completes
the services in Exhibit A, Contractor shall then be entitled to recover
its costs expended up to that point plus a reasonable profit, but no
other loss, cost, damage, expense or liability may be claimed, requested,
We think the library should cancel this RFID implementation and stick with a system that has worked well and cheaply
for many years. The many issues associated with RFID—serious
privacy threats, potential health risks, a big security hole, many technical
problems, lack of interoperability among vendors, and potentially high
operational costs—make the use of RFID at BPL a very bad idea.
Library Is Silent on Radio Frequency ID System
By Peter Warfield, June 25, 2009
Dr. Helen Caldicott, the noted author and world acclaimed anti-nuclear activist, will speak in Berkeley this Saturday, June 27, 2009, 7:30 p.m., at a benefit to support SuperBOLD (Berkeleyans Organizing for Library Defense) in its legal challenge of the City Council’s waiver of the Nuclear Free Berkeley Act (NFBA) for the Berkeley Public Library.
The waiver allowed the Berkeley Public Library to sign a contract with 3M Company for maintenance of its checkout system. 3M is a corporation that would not sign a standard city form for contractors that they are not now doing “work for nuclear weapons” and will not do so for the life of the contract. SuperBOLD contends that the City Council did not appropriately consider alternatives to the contract, as required by the NFBA.
Dr. Caldicott is the founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which won a Nobel Peace Prize, and was herself a nominee for the prize. The Smithsonian Institute named her one of the most influential women of the 20th century. She is the author of seven books, and will speak on “The Relevance of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power to International Relations and the Green Revolution.”
SuperBOLD, and others, have some very serious issues with the library’s radio frequency identification (RFID) checkout system, but the library administration and the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) appear determined to bury them in a pall of silence.
On June 10, BOLT held two meetings, a Budget Workshop and a regular meeting, and several members of the public raised concerns about important issues, primarily about the library’s privacy-threatening RFID checkout system. But neither the Trustees nor the library administration responded to the comments as they were made or in any discussions about the budget that followed.
Ying Lee, recent former BOLT member, made reference to the Commentaries of Peter Warfield and Gene Bernardi, saying she wanted to “recognize the work citizens have done” in revealing problems in the library’s RFID system. (See three articles by Bernardi and Warfield in the Berkeley Daily Planet, May 7 and May 14, 2009.) Lee said she recognized that RFID was problematic, but “didn’t track it systematically.” She said that RFID is “expensive” and “doesn’t work.” And, she said, there is “no evidence” of RFID reducing repetitive stress injuries (RSIs), as has been repeatedly stated as a reason for installing it. She also pointed out that “multiple [simultaneous] checkouts don’t work,” referencing another failed promise. “I don’t understand why we don’t have the barcode,” she concluded.
Phyllis Olin, who is President of the Western States Legal Foundation, an anti-nuclear organization, commented that she “second[s] what Ying has said.” “It’s time to stop throwing good money after bad,” Olin said, recommending that the library scrap the existing RFID system.
Gene Bernardi, member of SuperBOLD, presented a quotation from a vendor of self-service checkout systems, showing that a bar code self-checkout system, including a three-year maintenance contract, could be purchased for $164,431—less than the current two-year contract with 3M Company for maintenance only of the RFID system costing $168,915.
Phoebe Sorgen, a member of the Peace and Justice Commission, but speaking as an individual, asked the Trustees to prepare a detailed cost benefit analysis of continuation of the existing RFID checkout system as well as use of other vendors and other technology approaches, such as bar codes and magnetic strips as were previously used at the library.
Other members of the public also spoke about their objections to the library contracting with 3M Company.
Neither BOLT nor the library administration responded to these concerns at the time they were stated, or during budget discussions that followed. The only hint of action on RFID was that the budget for fiscal year 2009-10 and 2010-11 includes $30,000 for a consultant to “conduct research on the current options available in library security and materials handling systems.”
SuperBOLD has a special reason to be disappointed by the library’s silence and apparent inaction on RFID because the library director made a commitment in a meeting with SuperBOLD, its attorney Michael Lozeau, and the Acting City Attorney Zach Cowan. The agreement was memorialized in a May 11 letter to SuperBOLD’s attorney and signed by Mr. Cowan.
Cowan wrote: “As we discussed, I am writing this letter to confirm the following: Library staff are planning to present a report to the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) in June concerning general approaches to eliminate any need to contract with the 3M Company for maintenance of the library’s RFID system. Library staff hopes—but of course cannot promise—that the BOLT will provide sufficient guidance at that time to enable the preparation of a request for proposals.”
Library staff as referenced in the letter means library management, but we saw no report on the agenda, nor was one mentioned at the June BOLT meeting. As of this writing, we are not aware of any additional BOLT meetings in June.
In other actions June 10, BOLT agreed to ask the City Council on June 23 to approve an increase in the Library Services Tax rate of 0.815 percent, based on the Bay Area Consumer Price Index. The library estimated it would receive “an increase in revenue of approximately $404,091 which is included in the fiscal year 2010 proposed budget.
Yet the library’s annual budget for books and materials is dropping precipitously, by $125,000 for the next two fiscal years, to $816,000. This represents a 13 percent drop from the current year, and almost 30 percent from the $1,123,442 materials budget two years ago in fiscal year 2007-08 as shown in California Library Statistics, which prints self-reported figures.
In another serious service reduction, approved in May, 2009, the library plans to eliminate inter-library loan (ILL) That will cut off library patrons’ traditional access to a world of tens of millions of books and other materials in more than 50,000 libraries that co-operatively share books and other materials for the benefit of their patrons. Berkeley also thereby ends its contributions to the system, impoverishing the co-operative library community as well. The LINK+ system is a poor substitute, drawing from only 50 libraries and placing patrons at risk of a huge $115 fee for lost or damaged books.
The event’s sponsoring organizations include Berkeley Women in Black, Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, Code Pink, Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, Ecumenical Peace Institute-N. Cal, Grandmothers for Peace, Gray Panthers of Berkeley, Green Party of Alameda county, Library Users Association, Middle East Children’s Alliance, Nuclear Information Resource Service, Social Justice Committee of Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarians, War Resistors League-West, Western States Legal Foundation, and Veterans for Peace Chapter 69.
The sooner we can put the library’s dysfunctional and maintenance-expensive RFID system and its contract with 3M Company behind us, by substituting a more reliable and less expensive bar code system, the more attention we can pay to the library’s core purposes—books and materials, and staff.
Peter Warfield is executive director of Library Users Association and a member of SuperBOLD.