San Francisco libraries want to microchip their books

In San Francisco, will technology trump privacy concerns?
(Chris Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)
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The San Francisco Public Library is considering adopting a $7.5 million microchip system to help improve sorting and prevent theft, over the objections of the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Freedom Foundation, the San Francisco Examiner reports.

In 2004, San Francisco rejected a proposal to adopt radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags for use in library materials.

RFID systems have been adopted by other cities, including Los Angeles, where the technology allows readers to check out books via self-serve machines.


The proposed system in San Francisco would use tags with microchips that transmit information via radio signals, which would be picked up by dedicated readers within 30 inches of the microchipped materials.

But the ACLU of California hasn’t budged from their position that the system could constitute an invasion of privacy. Traditionally, libraries have closely guarded their patrons’ right to check out whatever books they choose without those titles being revealed to anyone else.

Nicole Ozer, the ACLU’s technology and civil liberties policy director for the group, told the Examiner that the ACLU still opposes the initiative.

“RFID has profound implications for civil liberties in San Francisco, including for immigrants’ rights,” Ozer said “It’s more important than ever that San Francisco safeguard privacy, free speech and civil liberties for all.”

Luis Herrera, the head librarian, wrote in a memo to the library commission that privacy concerns were overblown.

“Since the technology has been used in libraries for over 10 years, procedures for ensuring patron privacy are well-established and have proven effective,” he said. “This technology will provide significant benefits to both staff and patrons, helping us meet our goal for service excellence.”


Some who addressed the San Francisco library commission were ambivalent about the plan, including Librarians Guild representative Melissa Riley.

“I am not going to say I am opposed to RFID, but I do think we need to consider both the virtues and the drawbacks from the various angles before we decide to spend money in this budget situation,” she said.

The San Francisco Public Library has yet to formally propose adopting an RFID system, and as the Examiner notes, the city is currently dealing with budget deficits.

Library head Herrera told the San Francisco Public Library Commission, which consists of seven people appointed by the city’s mayor, that he wanted to ask the city to fund the system.

Library spokesperson Katherine Jardine said the library would be willing to work with skeptics of the plan should the library choose to move forward with a formal proposal.


“We have made no commitments or decisions at this point, and we’re looking forward to working with ACLU and EFF in addressing any shared concerns,” she said.