The Rise of the QR Code

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In a time where everyone, from primary school children to pensioners, has a mobile phone, device uses and how they help us interact with our world are constantly evolving. One application that has had a recent resurgence during the Covid-19 pandemic is the QR code.

What are QR Codes?

QR codes, abbreviated from “Quick Response codes”, are black squares arranged in a grid on a white background that function as scannable codes. They can be read by most smartphone cameras and are then processed on the device.

A QR code stores information, which is displayed on the scanning device after processing. Some types of destinations common in QR codes are web links, email drafts, application downloads and initiation of phone calls, though they are not limited to just these few. This scanning and processing works via imaging device and subsequent Reed-Solomon error correction, a type of code shared by many popular technologies such as CDs and Blu-ray discs.

The History of QR Codes

QR codes were first designed in 1994 for use in the Japanese automotive industry. Masahiro Hara, working for Denso Wave, was looking for a way to track vehicles during manufacturing that allowed high-speed component scanning. The codes’ black and white design was influenced by the pieces on a Go board, and just like the popular board game, QR codes soon gained widespread popularity.

The spread of QR codes was to a large degree tied to mobile phone technology allowing them to be scanned. In 2002, the first mobile phone offering the capability to scan and process QR codes was released, and the general public could benefit from the convenient technology for the first time. Still, popular uptake was relatively slow, and restricted to only the most dedicated followers. Back then, it was still necessary to download a separate app in order to scan the new codes. That changed in 2017 with the release of iOS 11, a new update for iPhone software. On the new operating system, the iPhone’s own camera app was able to scan QR codes – no need for third party apps anymore.

Pascal Keller, Technical Support Team Lead at Distrelec Switzerland, remembers the slow spread of QR codes:

I think they mostly got big around 2015 – it was pretty much a given you’d have a scan app on your phone, and I remember scanning a QR code on a flyer back then to download something. From then on, you slowly saw more applications added, like when buying a new device, the packaging would have a QR code that led you to the manual uploaded to the internet. They’ve been pretty established in Switzerland ever since then!

Pascal Keller, Distrelec Switzerland

QR Codes during Covid-19

In late 2019, QR codes continued to be useful in industries like marketing, business, education and non-profits. However, during the fight against Covid-19 from 2020 onwards, they have been able to provide truly unique functionality that helps everyone stay safe.

Erik Skogly, Country Sales Manager at Elfa Distrelec Norway, noticed this new trend:

As far as I was concerned, at least until a couple of years back, QR codes were something that was not used by Norwegians. But in February 2020, as the global pandemic started revving up, businesses, doctors, hospitals and more started adopting them as a touchless means of providing information. I’ve seen them used in restaurants to replace menus and to check in for tracking purposes, in hospitals and at doctor’s offices to register your visit – the practical and easy use of the QR code makes it a great tool for everyone. It will be very interesting to see where these codes will end up next!

Erik Skogly, Elfa Distrelec Norway

And indeed, uses of QR codes during the pandemic have been varied. In Canada, the Vancouver Art Gallery is using them to provide copies of the Gallery’s Visitors’ Guide, Shanghai is adopting QR Codes to improve safety and support the handling of emergencies in lifts, and in the US, Walmart is enabling QR code payments. They have been a great enabler of social distancing, helping people avoid unnecessary contact with others and minimising touching of shared surfaces.

Their increased use has been obvious: In a study carried out by MobileIron, 47% of respondents noticed an increase in QR code use during the pandemic. However, this increased reliance on QR codes opens up some questions regarding their safety.

QR Code Safety

As we know, a QR code is built using a square matrix with pixelated dots. This means that a QR code, once created, cannot be hacked – QR code technology is not a security risk in itself. However, like any website or technology, QR codes can be harmful when they don’t come from a trusted sender. MobileIron identified that, while 69% of respondents are confident in distinguishing a malicious URL, only 37% of respondents thought they would be able to distinguish a malicious QR code. This puts users at risk of three main types of cyber-attacks: phishing, malicious software distribution and pointing to harmful websites. These attacks are mostly carried out by creating fake posters including QR codes or sticking malicious QR code stickers over legitimate QR codes found on posters in public places.

Users can best protect themselves from these kinds of attacks by being vigilant: check for stick-on QR codes, don’t give personal or login info to avoid phishing, and look at URLs before proceeding. There are also QR code safety apps like Norton Snap that act as QR code scanners with built-in security features, protecting you from all types of cyber-attack via QR code.

The Future of QR Codes

Though QR codes have been established for many years, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted just how useful the technology can be in everyday life. In the study carried out by MobileIron, over 58% of respondents wanted to see QR codes used more broadly in the future, and authorities and businesses alike have jumped on the bandwagon to take advantage of the convenient technology. As our mobile phones and other devices evolve further, we can surely look forward to many new and exciting applications for QR codes.

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