QR codes have become ubiquitous over the past few years, with many businesses adopting them for everything from menus to contact information. While QR codes make accessing information quick and easy by simply scanning a code with your smartphone camera, some questions remain about how much personal data these codes collect.
What is a QR code?
A QR code (short for Quick Response code) is a type of barcode that can be scanned by a smartphone camera. QR codes store data in a machine-readable format. When scanned by a smartphone, the phone’s QR reader app or camera processes the code and converts it into something meaningful, usually text, a website URL, contact information, etc.
QR codes are capable of storing several hundred times more information than a standard barcode. They were originally invented in 1994 by a Japanese company called Denso Wave to track automotive parts during manufacturing. However, in recent years QR codes have become commonplace outside of factories due to their fast readability and large storage capacity.
What information is stored in a QR code?
A QR code simply converts data into a visual pattern of black and white squares that can be interpreted by a camera. The types of data that can be encoded include:
- Website URLs
- Contact information (names, phone numbers, emails, addresses)
- Calendar events
- Geolocation coordinates
- SMS/Text messages
- Email messages
- WiFi login credentials
- Payment information
Essentially, QR codes can contain any digital information that can also be transmitted online or digitally. However, the storage capacity of a QR code is limited by its physical size. Most commonly used QR codes can hold several hundred characters of data.
Do QR codes collect personal information?
QR codes themselves do not collect any information. They simply encode and store whatever data is generated by the creator of the code. QR codes are not capable of tracking users or gathering data on their own.
However, the data encoded into a QR code by its creator could potentially include personal information. For example, a restaurant could create a QR code menu that encodes your name, phone number, and order history along with the menu items. Or an event coordinator may include ticket numbers and customer names in their QR code. It all depends on what type of data the QR code creator chooses to embed.
The person or business generating the QR code determines what information is included, not the QR code itself. QR codes are not inherently designed to collect personal data. But they can be misused by unscrupulous parties to gather information without your knowledge.
Are there privacy risks when scanning QR codes?
While scanning a QR code itself carries little privacy risk, there are some potential issues to be aware of:
- Malicious redirects: If a bad actor generated the QR code, it could redirect you to a phishing site designed to steal personal information.
- Unsafe downloads: A QR code could attempt to automatically download malware onto your device.
- Personal data collection: As mentioned above, an untrustworthy source may include private data in a QR code without consent.
However, these risks come from the source of the QR code, not the technology itself. Reputable businesses are unlikely to include malicious content in their QR codes. Here are some tips to scan QR codes safely:
- Only scan QR codes shared by known, trustworthy individuals and companies.
- Check the URL preview in your camera app before tapping to open a web link.
- Install a QR scanner with built-in malware protection.
- Do not enable automatic downloads when prompted after scanning a code.
- Watch for spelling errors or other irregularities that may indicate a phishing URL.
Do QR code scanners collect user data?
Most QR scanner apps do not collect or transmit any user data by default. The scanner simply interprets the QR code and displays its contents.
Here are a few things to keep in mind regarding QR scanner apps and privacy:
- Stick to scanners from reputable, mainstream app developers.
- Avoid apps that require unnecessary permissions or access to personal data.
- Opt out of any user tracking or analytics if possible.
- Check that the app does not store your scan history or share data externally.
- Read all privacy policies thoroughly before downloading an app.
As long as you choose a trusted QR code reader that implements data privacy controls, there should be minimal risks involved in using most scanner apps.
Do QR codes work offline?
Yes, QR codes can work completely offline. Since the data is encoded directly into the barcode, no internet connection is required for a QR code to be scanned and interpreted.
The offline functionality of QR codes is one of their major advantages over short URLs or text-based information. As long as your smartphone camera and QR reader app are functioning, you can access the information from anywhere at any time, even without an internet connection.
Here are some examples of offline uses for QR codes:
- Store contact information for networking
- Provide instructions/information in places without connectivity like airplanes, remote locations, etc.
- Share wi-fi passwords for guests in your home or office
- Give directions or a map for a specific location
- Add a destination address to your maps app
Of course, if the QR code contains a URL, you would need to be online again to access the website. But the code itself does not require an internet connection, which is a key benefit.
Can QR codes track my location?
QR codes alone cannot track your location or monitor your movements. They do not have GPS or any location tracking capabilities built in. However, a QR code could potentially link to content that asks to access your location.
For example, a museum may have QR codes that provide more information about exhibits when scanned. Tapping the link provided by the QR code may trigger a location request to provide relevant content based on exactly where you are standing. But the QR code itself is not tracking you.
QR code creators could also choose to embed location coordinates within the code data, although this is less common. So if you scan a code containing a latitude/longitude, it may show up on a map to reveal where the code was generated.
Overall though, standard QR codes have no inherent location tracking abilities – your location data remains private when scanning a code. Location access requires tapping a live link, downloading an app, or enabling a setting after the scan.
Can businesses track my QR code scans?
In most cases, businesses have no way of tracking who scans their QR codes or how often. After generating a code, a business simply prints or displays it publicly for anyone to scan.
However, there are a few scenarios where limited tracking is possible:
- If the code links directly to the company’s website or app, they may be able to see analytics on traffic referred from their QR codes.
- For dynamic QR codes that change frequently, scans can be tracked by virtue of assigning codes individually.
- Embedding tracking variables in QR code links may allow basic analytics like how many times a code was scanned.
So while full tracking of QR code users and their data is not feasible, businesses can potentially see some usage analytics. This does not reveal any personal user details though.
Should I be concerned about QR code tracking?
Based on their technical capabilities, there is minimal need for privacy concerns around QR codes themselves. They do not collect personal data during scanning or have any inherent tracking abilities.
However, it is reasonable to be cautious about the source of any code you scan:
- Only scan codes shared by known, reputable sources.
- Watch for unusual requests for data or permissions.
- Check that public QR codes do not show signs of tampering or altering.
As long as best practices are followed, QR codes present no greater privacy risk than clicking any random link online or scanning a barcode at the grocery store. With basic precautions, QR codes are generally considered safe to use.
Best practices for scanning QR codes securely
Here is a summary of recommendations for scanning QR codes safely and minimizing privacy risks:
- Only scan QR codes you receive directly from trusted individuals and brands. Avoid public codes with no known source.
- Use a reputable QR scanner app from a major app store. Avoid apps that require unnecessary permissions.
- Check the URL preview before tapping a link to ensure it matches expectations.
- Decline any unexpected permission requests after scanning a code.
- Turn off automatic downloads if prompted to prevent malware.
- Monitor mobile data/wifi usage to catch large unexpected downloads.
- Compare the code visually before and after scanning to check for tampering.
- Cover sensitive personal info like credit card numbers when scanning codes.
- Clear your scanning history periodically if your app caches it.
QR codes themselves do not collect personal user data. They simply convert digital information into a scannable code. However, the data encoded into the QR code could potentially include private details if the creator chose to include it.
There are minimal inherent risks to scanning QR codes when basic security practices are followed. Only download apps from trusted sources, monitor permission requests, and be wary of public codes from unknown origins. With proper precautions, QR codes are generally safe to use without major privacy concerns in most situations.