I make technology decisions for a retail chain. Part of my job is to be mindful of the pitfalls of ‘the next new thing’. I’m the guy in the conference room that rains on your parade. I’m paid to be ‘That Guy’.
The unintended consequences of the next new thing can cost you more than you bargained for. Consumers come in many flavors. For the most part they expect technology to work without any thought as to how it works or why.
No doubt, these are some very exciting times. Smartphones, wireless access points and RFID readers are the industry standard tools of an instant gratification society. Today I want to tell you about one feature that has been around in some countries for a while. With the population carrying more and more smartphones, this is one that has a presence and a future.
Quick Response Codes (QR Codes)
You see these things everywhere lately. It took a while to get to the US. Mainly because there were a few other formats being bandied around. 2D barcodes or QR codes are square readable encoded pictures. The squares are formatted so that a remarkable amount of data can be placed within them. We are all familiar with the standard UPC barcode. They are the machine-readable product identifiers that have been around since the mid 1970’s. In comparison, the QR Code is a barcode on steroids. A Toyota company developed it as a high-speed inventory management tag and today it has evolved into a pictogram that is worth millions of words.
Any smartphone user with a camera and a reader application can scan a QR code. The code can carry information that will launch a web site, run an application, add a contact to your contact list. Almost anything that you can think of can be encoded into a scan able object. From a marketing point of view, the sky’s the limit. Put a QR code on an ad in a magazine and once scanned it can direct the users to purchase what they see on the fly.
I saw a beautiful example of how this works the last time I was in Japan. It was a local cinema. But there was no ticket booth. I watched customers walk up to the movie posters and scan the barcodes with their cellphone. They received a receipt on their phone to gain entry to the theatre. There was no ticket agent. It was totally paperless. I was quite surprised at first. It is culturally awkward not to have a live person inviting people into a place of business! But then, I smiled as I saw the cinema employee at the door ‘bowing’ in their customers with a boisterous “Irrashaimasse!” “Welcome!” There was, of course another staff member to ‘bow’ the customers out as they were leaving. “Arigato Gozaimasu!”
There are several good QR scanners available for whatever smartphone you own. Most of them are free. You may even want to create your own QR code for your own blog site or perhaps to place on your business card. Google “QR code creator” and see which one is suitable for you to try out.
While we are having fun with this, let me take a minute to be ‘That Guy’. I will leave you with some of the dark side thinking about this technology. Beware, my friends. These little encoded squares can be pretty neat. But go back to the part where I said that the code can carry information that can launch applications. Indeed. There is a risk to indiscriminately scanning things if you don’t know where they’ve been. So before you touch anything else; wash your hands and read on.
Smartphones typically belong to one user. That would be YOU! The user has full access and control to their own device. In the IT world that means that if you were to scan a QR code that has malicious intent, there is no telling what that phone is apt to be capable of. You have a camera because you are scanning a code. You have a microphone…because it is a phone. It is possible for the code to launch a method to stream the contents of your camera and audio to an unknown site. You would never know. Your permission is implied as you have full access to your phone. How about embedding a malicious QR code within a seemingly innocent QR code? Yes. It’s been done. You could be looking at a website that the QR code directed you to while the contents of your smartphone get sent to parts unknown. Perhaps you tether your phone to your laptop? Congratulations! Now your laptop is at risk. Identity theft here you come!
Have fun with what I have shared today. But remember the dark side! Don’t be a victim.