The Frequency Factor

When children in school and books in libraries can be tracked by radio waves, privacy advocates get all upset.
May 2005
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

Many a car renter can save himself time searching a parking lot for his unfamiliar vehicle: He just pushes a key-chain button that makes the car beep and flash its lights. Now district attorneys in Marin County, California, are using beeps to find legal files.

The D.A.'s office is outfitted with a radio frequency identification device system that allows a paper file to be tracked by more than a vague notion of where it was last. A staff member wielding a handheld tracking device can locate the missing file by following the beeping noise that starts up when the tracker gets near the file, which is imbedded with an identifying chip.

Move over Wal-Mart. Tagging inventory with RFID isn't just for consumer merchandise anymore. Governments are getting into the act, albeit slowly: Privacy advocates are expressing concern about the Orwellian overtones, especially when RFIDs surface in libraries and schools.

Libraries in such cities as Virginia Beach, Fresno, and Oak Park, Illinois, are using RFID tags to track inventory and allow patrons to check out their own items. Patrons can set a stack of books on the counter and the RFID reader gathers the information from the books all at once. Self checkout saves time and shortens lines. It also frees up staff to do other chores and can help some librarians avoid repetitive motion syndrome from checking out hundreds of items a day.

The RFID chips in Virginia Beach contain no customer information, just the book, CD or video barcode. But privacy advocates worry that once libraries sanction the use of RFID, other organizations and agencies will view that as a mark of integrity and accept it as a "safe" technology for other uses. That concern underlies a greater fear, that eventually readers' book choices can be tracked and that readers themselves can be traced through their library books. To underscore libraries' allegiance to privacy--an allegiance that surfaced when many libraries protested aspects of the Patriot Act that would allow federal intrusion into library records--the American Library Association has adopted a resolution on RFID spelling out privacy principles.

The biggest benefit of the technology for Virginia Beach has been improved customer service, says David Sullivan, the library system's CIO. When books go missing, it can be hard to know whether it's because they're mis-shelved, misplaced or stolen. "From a patron's standpoint, there's nothing more frustrating than looking in the catalog, identifying a book and then finding it's not on the shelf," he says. Typically, library staff does a general "reading of the shelves" to look for books not in the right spot. With RFID, staff can hunt directly for specific volumes.

The RFID tags cost about 50 cents apiece. That's 10 times the amount of the old security tags that set off an alarm if patrons walked out without checking out their books. But the RFID tags provide many benefits above and beyond security.

The debate can get more heated when schools use the devices to note the comings and goings of students. Parents have complained or even threatened legal action over having their children tracked. A case in point is Brittan Elementary School in Sutter, California. It furnished students with tags for attendance tracking. Scanners were placed above classroom doors to pick up signals from badges around children's necks. The identification number on the badge was not tied to any personal information, but several parents protested. One filed a complaint with the American Civil Liberties Union, saying that children are not pieces of inventory and that monitoring children's movements smacks of Big Brother.

The Enterprise Charter School in Buffalo, the first school to try them, is successfully using RFID tags for attendance. When the three- year-old school finally gets a cafeteria, CEO Gary Stillman plans to have children use the tags for lunch purchases so there's no stigma for students getting free lunches. All tags will be scanned, and no one will know who pays what.

Enterprise's use is pretty benign. Nevertheless, critics were in an uproar at first. "There were calls saying I was the Great Satan and we were planting little microchips under the skin," Stillman says. "We're just trying to find an easy way of keeping track of the students in the morning."

Few hackles were raised in Spring, Texas, near Houston, when elementary schools began tracking children as they got on and off school buses. When children don't come home when expected, it's usually because they've gone to a friend's house. Now school personnel can immediately tell parents where their child got off the bus, and parents have been supportive.

Clearly, RFID is still searching for its public-sector niche. But it's a relatively inexpensive technology that more and more agencies and offices are going to find useful--if they can get over the privacy hump.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |