QR Codes:

by James Hewings 19.10.2011

Have you seen these strange little black-and-white things around recently? If you look closely you might have noticed one in a magazine advertisement, a bus shelter or a shop window? They’re called QR Codes (Quick Response Codes) and they are used quite frequently in Japan where they were invented back in 1994 to track vehicle parts throughout a manufacturing chain. It’s only recently however, that they’re beginning to gain widespread popularity here in the U.K. They look similar to a regular barcode but apart from many technical differences the great advantage for the average person is that they can hold and display a lot of valuable information just by waving the camera of a smartphone over it. Try it now.

This information could be a text type of message, a video clip or more often, upon scanning a code like this, your phone could whisk you off to a website URL without even asking you. This provides great potential for many businesses as the web becomes mobile. In just a couple of years, it is estimated that more people will access the internet from a mobile device than from a static workstation (knol, 2011). Now, we are told, we no longer need to try and remember a website address as we travel past a ‘For Sale’ sign outside a house because our phone will take notes for us.
Now, that’s what we are being encouraged to subscribe to anyway and if you think that’s the future, then fine: go with it. However, just as many of us were encouraged to buy a Betamax video recorder back in the 1980’s it must be remembered that there are at least twenty other similar technologies around today and just because QR Codes are big in Japan doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be big here. Historically, our trends tend to follow those of America but even they choose to have different barcodes on their magazines than we do. Perhaps the only advantage QR codes have is the fact that they are as near to open-source as you could expect it to be. There is a patent on them but the Japanese patent holder (a division of Toyota) has decided not to enforce it.

There is much written about how wonderful QR codes are but there seems to be very little about their disadvantages. Maybe they are wonderful and there is nothing bad to say about them but to balance the argument, here are some of my own negative opinions.
1. The QR Code Reader needs to be opened first which often makes it quicker to take a picture of whatever it is, with your phone’s camera. Quite ironic for something called a Quick Response code.

2. Most QR codes direct people to a website but the whole DNS system was designed to turn IP addresses (numbers) into letters so people could remember them easier.

3. There are at least twenty other similar code formats around right now so any decision to invest in QR codes for the future can only be guesswork.

4. QR codes are all ambiguous in appearance and most people need some prompting if they are to take the time to scan it. If there is an indication of what will happen and why they should scan it, why not just tell them what they need to know right there?

5. There is increasing awareness that malicious code can be embedded into QR codes which can infect a phone by scanning it in much the same way that it can happen on a desktop P.C. Emerging studies include the potential for a QR code to extract passwords and address book information or even send emails and hijack many operations of a phone including the built-in camera (Threatpost, 2011).

As is often the case, when a technology finds a new purpose for which is wasn’t originally intended, we the public, rush to embrace it is left to us to discover the vulnerabilities within.

If you’d like to create a QR Code for free, just go to: http://www.baydesign.co.uk/old/qr-code-generator/

Knol – http://knol.google.com/k/ur/qr-codes-and-mobile-marketing/1ac37epu1u7yx/14#
Threatpost – http://threatpost.com/en_us/blogs/qr-tags-can-hide-malicious-links-experts-warn-091211