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Are book tags a threat?

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Once upon a time, checking out an armful of library books could seem to take longer than writing them yourself. Today, however, using the technology that lets commuters zip through E-ZPass tolls, some libraries are offering quicker checkout, improved inventory practices, and better protection against theft.

But privacy advocates are already opposing use of radio frequency identification (RFID) in libraries.

As RFID technology becomes more advanced, they warn, it could allow both the tracking of books borrowed by a reader and the tracking of the reader via his library books. This could permit the government or other interested parties to compile a list of readers who have checked out books on particular topics - a potential invasion of privacy that civil-rights advocates find troubling.

About 250 libraries nationwide - including several college libraries - already use the technology. In San Francisco, however, where the Public LIbrary Commission is moving forward with plans to use it in city libraries, the American Civil Liberties Union petitioned the city to withhold funding of the project until privacy risks could be more accurately determined.

RFID technology works by placing a thin, inch-square tag on each library item. The tags electronically store information, such as an identification number or a book's title and author. The data are accessed by RFID readers, which activate the tags by emitting radio signals and then reading information on the tag using a transceiver and decoder.

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