updated 10/3/2003 2:33:39 PM ET 2003-10-03T18:33:39

A civil liberties watchdog group is expressing concern over the San Francisco Public Library’s plans to track books by inserting computer chips into each tome. Library officials approved a plan Thursday to install tiny radio frequency identification chips, known as RFIDs, into the roughly 2 million books, CDs and audiovisual materials patrons can borrow.

THE SYSTEM still needs funding and wouldn’t be ready until at least 2005.

The microchips send out electromagnetic wave to a device that converts them to digital data containing a host of information. In libraries, the system is primarily designed to locate books in branches and speed up the checkout process.

Library officials say the “passive” chips would be deactivated as materials are taken from the library, thus preventing any stealth tracking of books — and by extension, people — off premises.

But Lee Tien, a staff lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is concerned that the chips may have information that would remain accessible and trackable, whether by ingenious hackers or law enforcement subpoena. That, he says, would be a threat to privacy rights.

“If there’s a technology for temporary deactivation, then presumably there’s a system for reactivating it,” Tien said. “Does the person have the ability to know if the RFID is on or off?”

Some of the foundation’s concerns are rooted in the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which critics have assailed as giving government the authority to obtain the records and threatening the privacy and First Amendment rights of library and bookstore patrons.

San Francisco’s city librarian, Susan Hildreth, says the devices will help streamline inventory and prevent loss. Tracking people is not the goal, she insisted.

“It will not allow us to track people to their home or any location,” Hildreth said.

She pointed out that several other major libraries, including the Seattle public library system, are moving to the chips instead of bar codes.

“Industry trends show that it’s going to replace the bar code very shortly,” Hildreth said. “We’re trying to prepare for the future.”

Seattle’s 24 libraries are installing RFID tracking systems, with the first to be ready next spring.

The city of Santa Clara is installing RFID tracking at its main library and the county is considering a similar move.

Still, it’s the opportunity for unauthorized tracking that concerns Tien.

“The issue is other people, other institutions. What will they do if the RFID is insecure?” Tien said. “We’re talking about the imbedding of location trafficking devices into the social fabric.”

Hildreth said San Francisco library officials may hold a public forum to discuss the chips further.

© 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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