Singapore uses radio frequency ID tags in world’s most advanced library system

New technologies, like biometrics and RFID, hold promise for governments, but privacy issues have some citizens worried. Other countries are already embracing these technologies in schools and libraries. We’re not quite that far along in Canada, but this could be a sign of what’s to come. Should we be concerned?Singapore, for example, has what’s considered to be the most advanced public library system in the world. Its 23 libraries use RFID (radio frequency identification) to track 10 million books and other items for loan, such as magazines, CDs and DVDs. Each item is tagged with an RFID chip containing information such as title and call number. You simply slide your identity card into a self-checkout kiosk, and an RFID reader retrieves information about the item from the embedded RFID chip. Singapore is boosting security at these kiosks with built-in cameras that capture an image of the person checking out the book. It has already rolled this out at kiosks in six libraries. The city-state’s National Library Board (NLB) says the cameras are meant to resolve disputes from, say, a person who claims not to have borrowed a particular book. To address privacy concerns, the NLB is encrypting and watermarking the images to “ensure they don’t fall into the wrong hands.”
Does this all seem a bit high-tech for public libraries? The NLB says it has reduced queuing time during peak hours from 1.5 hours to less than five minutes. A loan is cancelled as soon as the borrower drops off the book, reducing return times. This has sped up the sorting process, so items are returned to the shelf more quickly.
Perhaps most significantly, the NLB claims it’s saving S$50 million a year in manpower costs, since it needs fewer librarians to stamp books for loans and returns. And, as a result of shorter queuing times, it has seen a three-fold increase in the number of visitors to its libraries.
EFF voices privacy issues
Libraries in the U.S. and the U.K. are also rolling out RFID in libraries to improve productivity and customer service, as well as reduce loss due to theft. Berkeley Public Library, for example, spent US$650,000 on its library tracking system, which it says has helped to reduce checkout times and lessen worker strain injuries.
But some citizens worry RFID could be used as a surveillance tool, infringing on their privacy rights. A book, for example, could store private information linked to the reader. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group, says policy makers need to evaluate the technology and place limits on its use. After all, is it necessary that Big Brother keep tabs on us while we’re conducting such a seemingly minor transaction? Border crossings are one thing, but libraries?
At this point, RFID doesn’t pose much of a threat to citizens, since RFID tags generally have limited read ranges (the reader would have to be close to the tag in order to read the information stored on it). But as the technology evolves, read ranges will increase, as will memory, allowing more information to be stored on tags.
The danger doesn’t lie in the technology itself, but in how it’s used. Citizen information should not be added to the tag, for example, and any link between the borrower and the book needs to be broken as soon as the book is returned. If a library offers value-added services, such as recommended reading based on a person’s preferences, it needs to make it clear to citizens that these services will require giving up a certain degree of privacy.
Biometrics is another technology that can offer benefits to governments, but public perception — that it’s an invasive technology — could play a key role in how widely it’s adopted.
Governments — including Canada — need to set guidelines about acceptable use around technologies like biometrics and RFID.
We need to take less of a wait-and-see approach and make it clear to the public exactly how these technologies can — and can’t — be used.

It comes down to policies and standards: who will have access to databases storing fingerprints and iris scans in schools, for example, and will law enforcement officials be able to gain access to this information for criminal issues?
Biometrics — both fingerprints and iris scans — are making their way into schools outside of Canada. Fingerprint scanning has been introduced in some U.S. school cafeterias, where parents deposit money into a lunch account and students use a fingerprint scan to pay for lunch. This can help eliminate hassles with lost or stolen lunch cards or forgotten PIN numbers. And iris scanners are being used in the U.K. and Australia to take attendance and pay for school lunches.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Vawn Himmelsbach
Vawn Himmelsbach
Is a Toronto-based journalist and regular contributor to IT World Canada's publications.

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