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 of $894,067).
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 in 1999.
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.