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Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)

Charity Neave

LIS 666, Information Ethics

Spring 2007

Wiki Article


Very crude RFID technology was first used in WWII to identify aircraft.  German Aircraft personnel realized that the radar signals received changed as pilots twirled their planes on approach, which could then be used to identify their own planes. British researchers refined this discovery by attaching transmitters to Allied aircraft.  From there scientists in the United States, Europe, and Japan further developed the technology. Since that time, RFID has been used extensively in the commercial market as a means of preventing theft, and more recently to track shipments.  RFID first appeared as a too for tracking and identification in the commercial market in the 1980’s and has been developed for a number of other purposes and industries, from tracking cows, toll road management, tracking missiles, to creating more efficient appliances.[1]


RIFD and Libraries

Approximately 2 % of libraries in the United States and 8% worldwide are using RFID to tag their collections.  RFID is used largely in public and Academic libraries in the United States.  One of the libraries at the forefront was the library at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada which began utilizing RFID as early as 1991.  Thus far, Singapore leads the profession in use of RFID, with 39 libraries serving over 4.35 million users utilizing the technology in 2006.  Although at present there are no definite studies concerning RFID use in US libraries, it has been estimated that RFID has been implemented, or will be shortly, in approximately 300 libraries nationwide.[2]


RFID offers distinct advantages for libraries, particularly in the areas of collection management and automated circulation systems.  Because the technology reads the tag without relying on “line of sight,” RFID can be used to process a relatively large amount of information quickly.   This allows for quick scanning of shelves, reliable automated systems for self-check-out and automated checking in, and higher level of service.  Some potential uses include the ability to collect and collate data to better understand and serve patrons’ needs.


RFID technology is expensive and still in a somewhat variable stage of development for libraries.  The technology is not interchangeable from one provider or vendor to another.  These and additional concerns are cause for concern among librarians, consumer groups, and the public. 



The privacy controversy over RIFD arises primarily from two misconceptions:  1) the RFID tags contain and transmit patron information; and 2) the tags can be read after they have been taken out of the library.  In truth, these tags are “powerless,” in that they have no embedded power source.  The tags at present do not have the ability to keep or send information about patrons unless they are in range of the coupler.  Additionally, the range of RFID used in libraries is generally very short, between 8 and 18 inches.  Finally, the tags only hold information relating to the item, such as item identification, potentially organizational data, and a security device.


There are more traditional privacy threats which must be protected against.  Such threats include the retention of data by the library or leaving the link to the automation system (PC).  These are concerns which have been present as libraries began using barcodes, and are generally procedural issues and it is important that libraries develop appropriate policies and procedures to protect patrons’ privacy.


As RFID is developed further for library use, there may be uses which could compromise privacy.  One area of interest is in the ability to use the technology to collect and store circulation and collection statistics.  In these cases it is again essential that libraries develop appropriate policies and procedures, which in this case would focus on encryption. 


Consumer advocate groups, including the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have argued for legislation regarding the use of RFID. The American Library Association (ALA) has also been involved in projects to determine risks and propose practices and guidelines.


Currently there has been no Federal legislation concerning the use of RFID in libraries.  However, several states in particular have ongoing legislative attempts at regulating the use of RFID.  In California Democratic Senator Joe Simitian has introduced several failed bills in response the state’s use of RFID chips in various forms of government issued identification, including library cards.  Currently there are five bills in California which address this issue, as well as criminalizing “surreptitiously” reading data from and RFID tag and possible corporate requirements of RFID implantation.  In Washington State, the Electronic Bill of Rights was passed in February of 2007.  It was introduced by Republican Representative Morris to help protect consumers against “misuse” of RFID tags. A bill was introduced in Florida this past month to prevent implantation of RFID chips in surgery patients without their consent.  Though this is not directly related to libraries it does indicate the growing state legislation. 


Such legislation is partially preventative in nature as no studies presently exist concerning privacy and RFID.  It could be argued that such legislation may bring about the need for increased education and formal studies. In July, the first meeting of the Senate RFID Caucus was held to begin such a process.


----- “Florida Bill Adresses Implanting an RFID Microchip against a Patient’s Will.”

            The GMP Letter.  1.327 (Apr 5 2007). Lexis-Nexis.

----- “The History of RFID Technology.” The RFID Journal (Online).  2002.  Apr 28             2007.


Boss, Richard. “RFID Technology for Libraries.”  PLA TechNotes. 2004. American

            Library Association. April 28 2007.    


Gilbert, Alorie.  “RFID, Coming to a Library Near You.” Oct 8, 2004. Apr 28             2007.  



Roberti, Mark.  “A Compromise on the California RFID Bill.”  RFID Journal (Online).  Jul 4 2005.  Apr 18 2007.


Roberti, Mark.  “Senate Staffers Get Up To Speed on RFID.”  RFID Journal (Online) 

            Jul 17 2007.  Apr 18 2007.         


Songini, Marc L.  “California Lawmakers to Vote on Five Bills to Regulate RFID

            Technology.”  Computer World.  (April 5 2007).  Lexis-Nexis.


US States News.  “RFID Legislation Clears Technology Committee:  Next Stop House

            Floor.” US States News (Feb 23 2007).  Lexis-Nexis.


Useful Links


The American Libraries Association (ALA) site for RFID:


The ALA is the professional association for libraries in the United States.  This site offers information and articles regarding issues surrounding RFID technology, as well as links to other valuable resources.


The RFID Journal’s site


The RFID Journal is an independent publication devoted to RFID related news and information, in all of its forms.


The CDT’s site


The CDT is one organization devoted to Consumer Rights advocacy group.  For links to others, see the ALA site listed above.



The Consumers Against Supermarket Invasion and Numbering (CASPIAN) site:


Consumer Rights Group primarily concerned with “savings” cards.

RFID Gazette:


The RFID Gazette is an online newsletter, offering articles about the uses of RFID in all industries.


Charity Neave

April 28, 2007.

[1] -----.  “The History of RFID Technology.”  The RFID Journal online. 2002.        , retrieved Apr 28 2007.

[2] Gilbert, Alorie.  “RFID, Coming to a Library Near You.” Oct 8, 2004.      ,+coming+to+a+library+near+you/2100-1012_3-5411657.html

               retrieved Apr 28, 2007.

Charity Neave Johnson,
Mar 18, 2010, 12:45 PM