No RFID for Library Books

Our industry's love of productivity-improving and cost-lowering advances-and RFID tags are unquestionably both-is outstripping the ability of individuals to remain private while conducting normal public business, Cameron Sturdevant writes.

The chief librarian of the San Francisco Public Library is considering spending almost $1 million over two years to replace bar codes and magnetic strips with RFID tags on books, videos and other library materials. Although I appreciate City Librarian Susan Hildreths desire to streamline the check-in/check-out process, I think using RFID tags is a bad idea.

My concern has more to do with the sorry state of privacy rights and the erosion of protections against unreasonable searches and seizures than with the capabilities of RFID tags. Today, the tags can be limited in range (the library is specifying a transmission range of 1 to 30 inches) and the amount of information they carry. In addition, the library wants the tags to carry only one unique item identifier and a 1-bit read/write security toggle.

However, even with such limits, it takes a determined act of self-deception not to see how RFID tags could carry much more information over much greater distances in the near future. Using Moores Law, its easy to envision that in 18 months, the RFID tags and the readers that power and scan the tags contents will dramatically increase in power.

Although I believed Hildreth when she told me during a telephone interview earlier this month that she doesnt want anything such as a title or bibliographic information contained in the RFID, theres no law or rule that would prevent subsequent library chiefs from adding that information.

Unlike a paper bar code and tattle tape (the magnetic strip that is commonly added to library books and that sets off an alarm if the strip is not desensitized), RFID tags can be activated and used outside the library. Im not worried that a script kiddie is going to hack up a Pringles can and scan the contents of my book bag. Im concerned about institutionalized scanning that invades my privacy.

For example, FasTrak toll transponders are basically RFID tags. I stopped using the FasTrak system for my commute after I got the first detailed invoice that revealed exactly what time my car passed over the San Mateo Bridge. I dont want information about my habits to be stored and used for some marketing or law enforcement purpose.

Another example of routine public monitoring is traffic-surveillance cameras. These cameras are just about everywhere. Its even worse on public transit, where every train car has four surveillance cameras. If my picture and voice can be recorded just for using public transit, I dont think its paranoid for me to wonder if RFID tag scanning will be next.

Im concerned that our industrys love of productivity-improving and cost-lowering advances—and RFID tags are unquestionably both—is outstripping the ability of individuals to remain private while conducting normal public business.

The expected spread of RFID tags will only increase the efforts individuals must make to stay private citizens. Its currently estimated that basic read-only chips used in RFID tags cost anywhere from 5 to 50 cents. These prices are expected to decline, while the power of the chips will likely increase dramatically. The pressure to add RFID tags to everything that can be sold or rented will mean many more opportunities for anyone with an RFID scanner (think anti-theft scanners at store entrances) to inventory the lives of individuals.

Hildreth assured me that the computer systems holding patron borrowing records and book identification codes are protected with sophisticated security devices. Actually, I think library records are protected more by the fact that they are a low-value target. But if, for example, identity thieves find it useful to harvest personal data—including interests that are indicated by patron borrowing—the librarys security system will face a challenge the likes of which it hasnt met before.

Library books should remain a private partner in a relationship of exploration and learning with the borrower. RFID tags give library books something they dont need: a transmitter that can become a blabbermouth. Ive already given up the convenience of FasTrak during my commute. I hope I dont have to carry a lead shield around my library books.

Senior Analyst Cameron Sturdevant can be contacted at

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