QR codes are becoming more common in the smartphone-focused world of today, but are they safe?
QR codes aren’t just used for what they were made for, which was to track inventory in factories. They are now used in many ways, from marketing and real estate to smart packaging and digital business cards.
Along with the rise in businesses and people using QR codes, there are more and more worries about how private and safe they are. This is mostly because attackers use the technology as a way to install malware or get unauthorized access to personal and financial data.
So are QR codes safe? And could they be harmful?
If you’re worried about using QR codes or scanning them for your business, here’s the short version: QR codes are safe and secure by nature as a technology.
But the details are where the devil is. First, let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of QR code security.
How do QR codes work?
In their original and most basic form, QR codes are square arrangements of black and white squares that hold information.
They were made so that they could hold more information and data formats than the bar code, which came before them. Masahiro Hara, who created QR technology at Denso Wave, thought it was important that a scanner could easily read the codes. So, “Quick Response” is a good full name for QR.
QR codes were first used in the automotive supply business almost 25 years ago. Since then, they have spread to other industries and business tasks.
They now give businesses a way to connect with their customers both offline and online by letting them link digital content to physical touchpoints. With the ability to change the color and design of QR codes to make them unique, they have become a favorite among brands that want to reach customers in new ways.
QR code adoption
In the few years before COVID made the world touchless, QR codes became more popular and were used more and more.
The most important reason?
The ability to scan QR codes was no longer just available in third-party apps for smartphones. Users could pull out their phones, open the camera app that came with their phones, point to the code, and voilà, they were on their way to the encoded content.
Soon after, the pandemic gave this new growth a boost. COVID’s requirements for contactless payments meant that restaurants, which depend on people eating out a lot, had to make sure that contact was avoided as much as possible. This is how the QR code menu, which is like the old paper menu card but doesn’t need to be touched, came to be.
And as time went on, no-contact COVID protocols led to the development of new use cases in different situations. QR codes are now used on CPG packaging, to track inventory, on digital business cards, and in other ways.
Hackers, cybercriminals, and people who try to scam people online are also using this technology more and more. Should any of this worry you if you’re scanning a QR code or using one in your marketing campaign?
Let’s dig a little deeper.
Are QR codes safe?
As was already said, QR codes are a naturally safe technology. They just point people to the information encoded in their phone’s camera app or a separate QR code reader. This information can be a website URL, a PDF file, a landing page, a questionnaire, a video or audio file, or something else. There are almost too many ways to use it.
But wouldn’t that be like typing a website address by hand into a browser or clicking a link to a landing page, questionnaire, or video?
In this case, though, the QR code scan does the work of typing or clicking on links by hand.
A QR code is basically just a way to get from a physical point of contact to a digital destination. The user doesn’t have to do anything by hand. You only need to point your camera at the code that is shown.
Since QR codes are, at their most basic level, a way to connect the physical and digital worlds, they can’t be a security risk until people use them to enter the digital world. This is about the same as if you were casually browsing the web on your phone, tablet, or computer. There’s nothing more to it than that.
But because they are used so often as digital portals to the real world, attackers with bad intentions usually find new ways to hack into your device or use social engineering to get your private information.
So, you should understand QR code security as a physical-to-digital gateway from both the user’s and the company’s point of view.
Incapable to track you in real time
It’s important to know how QR code tracking works and how businesses can use the technology to collect data.
Here’s what you need to know. When a user scans a QR code, only at that moment is data collected. This is all the information that a QR code solution provider can get. This includes the total number of scans, the number of scans that are different from each other, timestamps, the operating system of the device, and so on.
“QR code tracking” is just like taking a snapshot of data at the place where the QR code is used.
This goes against the common belief that using QR codes can make you less private and less safe online. Again, just a misunderstanding! The user’s phone doesn’t turn into a live tracker when they scan a QR code. QR code generators can’t get your personally identifiable information (PII) or put a tracker on you to see where you are or what you’re doing.
QR codes gather first-party information
You can build a sophisticated first-party data warehouse for your business by using QR codes with a solution that has strong back-end tracking analytics.
First-party data collected directly from interactions between a brand and a user can help you streamline your marketing efforts and learn more about your target audience or audiences from a business intelligence point of view.
And since tech giants like Apple and Google care a lot about user privacy and security, it’s more important than ever for businesses to use newer channels like QR codes to make it easier to connect with their core audiences.
Third-party cookies are no longer supported by browsers like Safari, Firefox, and Brave, and Chrome is about to join them.
In a tech world that cares a lot about user privacy, QR codes offer an easy and different way to build leads and collect first-party data about users from the real world. Businesses also benefit from the fact that people who scan their QR codes have chosen to do so. This means that they get information about people who are more likely to buy from them.
Why? When someone pulls out their phone to scan your codes and interact with your digital content, you can be sure they have high intent.