RFID in Libraries


Thoughts on Warfield & Tien piece

Filed under: — Laura Smart @ 3:41 pm

I’ve got a bit of ranting to do about the most recent commentary in the Berkeley Daily Planet from anti-RFID activists Peter Warfield and Lee Tien. Full disclosure: I’m neither pro or con on RFID. I think the privacy concerns are valid and return on investment is poorly documented. Yet, I also believe the technology holds promise for improving service to library users. My fence-sitting advice to librarians considering RFID is “tread carefully.” This shouldn’t be news to anybody that read my fall 2004 netConnect article.

Any decision a librarian makes on RFID should be supported by facts. A list of particulars without context doesn’t do anybody any good. I question the Daily Planet’s ability to be unbiased in their reporting of this ongoing story. Some of Warfield and Tien’s reasoning is specious and should not be left to stand without question.

The first thing I noticed about last Friday’s piece is that the “commentary” label is very small and easily overlooked. The fact that it’s a commentary and not a news item is a big tip-off to readers that this does not contain a balanced viewpoint. A librarian not noticing the commentary aspect could give more weight to the information than deserved.

The second thing I notice is that the Daily Planet is giving more space to those opposed to the implementation of RFID at the Berkeley Public Library than to those in favor. Since January the newspaper has published two news pieces focused on the controversy, two commentaries by Warfield and Tien, but only one rebuttal commentary by library trustee Laura Anderson. See also a bona fide article from Friday’s issue regarding weeding, which is related to RFID and puts implementation into a fairly negative light. I guess that controversy can sell more papers than fair and balanced coverage.

That said, let’s address those Warfield and Tien comments that rub me the wrong way:

“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” and “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.”

Well ok. This may be fact. But RFID is a new-ish technology for libraries. The first installation in a North American library was 1999. Three years ago (2002 for those of you who are counting) the number of libraries with RFID could still probably be counted on one hand and privacy issues weren’t at the forefront of the news. Jackie Griffith, director of the library, says that the first appearance of RFID on the BOLT agenda was Oct. 9, 2002. The board didn’t adopt a RFID plan until April, 2004. Griffith says the time lag is because they, “did a long research of the issues.” Just because something doesn’t appear in minutes or an agenda, doesn’t mean it wasn’t investigated by the board.

Griffith says, “The privacy issues were not discussed until the board meetings after Lee Tien visited the library committee in Oct, 2003. However, during that period, the committee met with Deidre Mulligan from the Boalt Hall’s Samuelson Clinic on Technology and Public Policy several times to discuss privacy issues, and also with David Molnar to discuss privacy issues and technology. Each of them helped us write our RFP for a system that emphasized privacy and security. When we went to the board in March, 2004 for a special meeting, for the approval of our contract with Checkpoint, they had many questions about privacy and the effectiveness of the system. When we couldn’t answer all the questions, we deferred until April, 2004 when we brought them the answers. Then they approved the system.”

The problem, in my opinion, isn’t the amount of time the board spent discussing the privacy issues. Warfield and Tien just aren’t satisfied with BOLT’s decision.

“There was 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.”

What about the health risks of repetitive strain injuries? I’m not minimizing whatever potential hazards exist due to electromagnetic radiation or radio waves but I haven’t yet heard about somebody getting cancer from a RFID chip. Readers of this blog have heard about the millions in workers compensation that BPL has paid. I know Warfield and Tien questioned the numbers published about BPL worker’s comp costs in their 3/4/05 commentary (at least that one was labeled better). But Jackie Griffith provided a full explanation of Warfield and Tien’s biased interpretation of the numbers. See the entry on this blog dated 3/9/2005.

The Board of Library Trustees made their decision to implement RFID with real data on worker health and safety before them. To say that they weren’t aware of health risks is a bit of a insult. It appears to me like they are trying to make the work environment safer. Another thing makes me ponder. Current library security systems work using electro-magnetism. Wouldn’t exposure to the electromagnetic field around current security gates be a health risk as well? I need to investigate that further, but I don’t see people getting upset at the potential for peril with the technology that is already in wide-spread use.

“There is no evidence that BOLT was told about RFID’s huge security weaknesses”

All library security mechanisms are fallible. All. RFID’s loss rate is no better or worse than current systems.

“RFID problems elsewhere…such as collision and donut tags.”

Collision only becomes an issue when books are very thin, such as picture books. Not all books are thin enough to be a problem. When collision is a threat it can be overcome by alternating the placement of tags on each book. You tag them in a different pattern. End of problem.

Donut tags are a bit of a problem BUT they don’t have to be used. Griffith says, “this was a deal breaker for us and we delayed purchasing a system until we were satisfied that Checkpoint had a solution.” The Berkeley Public Library will be beta-testing Checkpoint’s new security cases.

“Some libraries criticized Checkpoint Systems … Items added cannot be recognized by Checkpoint system [sic] for check-out/security until nightly synchronization between III [the library’s computer system] and Checkpoint”

This point is simply incorrect. A Checkpoint engineer (who must remain anonymous due to organizational policy) contacted me to clarify how the company’s product works. The nightly synch is only for those checked in/out items where staff hand-entered the barcode. Self-check or staff-check using RFID scanners will have no issues. All of these operations are always checked against the records in the library database. The self-check and staff-check machines are instantly in synch.

The security gates do rely on the server’s cache list of check-in/check-out items. The communication is instantly synchronized for those items checked in/out via scanning. There is no detectable latency from the gates querying the server as materials are walked through the security gates. In non-tech terms that means it happens so quickly that it appears instantaneous. I have witnessed this first hand during my inspection of the Checkpoint system in use at the Cerritos Public Library. Checkpoint gates work just as quickly as other RFID vendors or an electro-magnetic system in my observation.

I fully support Warfield and Tien in their right to express their opposition to the RFID plans at the Berkeley Public Library. There are legitimate reasons to question RFID. Privacy issues and return-on-investment immediately leap to my mind as grounds for moving slowly. The rationale of Warfield and Tien, however, reeks of muck-raking. Why attempt to arouse public indignation with misleading arguments when there are viable alternatives? My advice to any librarian is to take whatever Warfield and Tien write heavily salted.


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