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SF library may spend $3.6M to replace barcodes with microchips

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A woman skims a book at the San Francisco Public Library in San Francisco, Calif. Monday, November 20, 2017. (Daniel Kim/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

The San Francisco Public Library plans to spend millions of dollars on installing radio frequency tags in all of its books and other check-out materials, replacing the old bar code system — despite objections from civil liberty groups concerned about privacy.

The technological upgrade may be one of the final efforts from City Librarian Luis Herrera — he recently announced his retirement effective next month — and one he had failed to achieve more than a decade ago after funding for a similar proposal was rejected by the Board of Supervisors.

The San Francisco Examiner previously reported in December 2016 that Herrera had revived the plan.

SEE RELATED: SF Public Library revives plan to install microchips in books

Now, the revived effort is advancing toward approval. The library’s proposed budget includes $3.6 million over the next two fiscal years to install and operate the radio frequency identification system, or RFID.

The San Francisco Public Library Commission will hold a hearing Thursday on the budget proposal. The cost includes adding RFID tags to the library’s entire collection and upgrading the checkout machines and security gates.

Library officials say it will allow patrons to more quickly check out materials using self-serve checkout stations and make it easier on staff who wouldn’t have to scan each item’s barcode. Taking inventory of books on shelves would also be easier using an RFID reader and security would improve, they say.

But the revived effort was blasted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California in a Feb. 15, 2017 joint letter to Herrera. The groups wrote they “have opposed, and continue to oppose, the use of RFID technology in libraries because of its very significant privacy and free speech concerns.”

The EFF and ACLU said in the letter they “are extremely surprised that the Library is revisiting this issue, particularly in the current political climate.”

“Now is certainly not the time for the Library to be adopting RFID technology — a technology that is built to allow the books in our hands and our bags to be monitored and tracked from a distance without us ever knowing,” the letter reads. “Rather, the Library should be taking affirmative steps to further safeguard the privacy and free expression of diverse community members.”

Herrera responded six months later in an Aug. 22, 2017 letter to EFF and ACLU, defending the technology.

Herrera said that 75 percent of Bay Area libraries use RFID and “none of the libraries queried fielded any reports of privacy concerns from patrons after implementation.” He added that “RFID has become the industry standard in many public libraries.”

He refuted there would be any privacy issues the way they plan to roll out the system. Library cards wouldn’t have RFID tags and the materials would have “passive RFID tags with limited range of under one meter.”

Lee Tien, an EFF senior staff attorney, who signed the letter, maintained on Tuesday the position in the February letter. “We still stand by it,” Tien said.
City departments must submit budget proposals to the Mayor’s Office by Feb. 21. The mayor then must submit a proposed city budget by June 1 to the Board of Supervisors for review and adoption.

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