Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is it wrong to wonder why there is a QR code on the back of a kid’s cereal box? My four year old and six year old insist on using my phone when they eat breakfast now because they want to follow the code, play a game, and reveal some treasure. I am worried about these QR Codes and kids’ safety. Why can’t they just print directions on the box instead of making them go to a website with my phone?! Noelle, Strawberry
Dear Noelle: It doesn’t sound like a nutritious way to begin the day. QR codes, aka Quick Response codes, help machines efficiently connect to humans. They don’t belong at anyone’s breakfast table. I personally use them when there is simply not an alternative, like on a printed airline ticket or a “contactless” menu.
Put simply, QR codes are a two-dimensional version of bar codes. Information is encoded in an image using vertical lines of different thicknesses. The Wall St. Journal recently had a “go to” article, extolling their two-dimensional properties. A scanner is used to send up to 4000 binary digits (0/1) of information embedded in the QR code and a computer at the other end recovers the message, and can make error corrections as needed. Mathematically, it’s a genius invention. The QR code has been in use for nearly thirty years, beginning with the Japanese inventory of factory parts.
Outside the Box
Today, QR codes have been in the news as they have been proposed to encode information about when you take your Covid vaccine, which dosages, and where administered. The problem I have is that I cannot see what is encoded in the protocol. While it is probably no different than the little scribbles made by health practitioners on the vaccination card I carry, I have no way of knowing if say, they mixed up the dates, my name, or something else. And, I will never know the metadata it might carry about me, my phone, the GPS settings, or more.
There’s not much risk when your kids scan the code on your breakfast cereal, but I would hate to have kids clamoring early in the morning to play with my phone. Since 2017, a QR scanner has been built into the iOS phone camera. The QR code will not go away: your kids might need to use it on field trips to museums and when they view outdoor exhibits.
Question and Review (Q/R)
QR codes present greater risk if you are not on a school field trip, or out and about, and you scan a random QR code printed on a rogue menu, or an ad, say promoting a work-from-home scheme. Or, more vulnerable, a sticker with a QR code promises an interesting social event. You can never be sure what site those linkages are going to send you ro and if they can open up your phone’s settings.
We are all getting more informed and aware of the ways that our phones can spy on us, and how we need to lock them down. So, while a QR code saves us from having to first remember, and then say carry a vaccine card, or type in a long web address, efficiency is not always the best response. Certainly, not when it comes to boxes of breakfast cereal although it does lend a “high tech” crunch to that brand. Perhaps the cereal company might enjoy hearing from you!
Lots of new symbols- the QR codes, emojis, hashtags, and the @ sign are all becoming a new vernacular, and they aid person- to -machine communications. The QR code is the most advanced of these, and at the same time, the most opaque.