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Monday, November 25, 2019

QR Codes: A ticking time bomb for authentication?

Ryan Blakley

The special affinity between human, smartphone and scannable code is a well-documented phenomenon. According to Juniper Research, 5.3 billion QR code coupons will be redeemed by smartphones by 2022. To give this some scope, there are over 7.5 billion humans on Earth.

At the roots of the QR code is the Japanese automotive company Denso Wave which, in 1984, produced the first QR code to track vehicles during manufacturing. However, over three decades, these square shaped symbols have exploded into almost every industry imaginable. For many businesses, providing a QR code for customers to scan is an efficient way to have them engage with interesting brand content. For example, when scanned with a smartphone, they can return website addresses, links to a photo gallery or even contact details of your local product manager.

It’s a pretty simple process to make one too with a host of free QR code generators available online. Any individual or business can make one in minutes. At a time when we are obsessed with maximising the amount of data available on the smallest possible surface area, an assortment of black and white squares embedded into your corner store’s broccoli is a dystopian future possibility.

“The best way to avoid malicious QR codes… is simply not to use them”.
David Geer — Chief Security Online Magazine (2013)

While their ease of creation has underpinned their global popularity, particularly in Asia, they are double-edged swords when it comes to security. As the creation of a QR code is open to anyone, they can be misused to perpetuate product counterfeit. Additionally, they remain just another way for criminals to exploit mobile device users. Viral links, in place of a legitimate code, can infect mobile devices and leach personal data from it once the user has scanned.

The consequences of replacing legitimate QR codes with “fake” codes are becoming increasingly noticeable with counterfeiting estimated to drain US$4.2 trillion from the global economy by 2022. Essentially that is revenue diverted from the rightful accounts of legitimate businesses to the pockets of scammers. There are, however, examples of sophisticated anti-counterfeit technologies available to protect consumer trust and I have been fortunate enough to have been a part of one such technology team; Laava.

The Laava Smart Fingerprint is a scannable tag that can authenticate the provenance of a product and scanning a Laava Fingerprint is as simple as scanning a QR code. A consumer can scan the Fingerprint, located on product packaging for example, and receive a confirmation that the item is what it professes to be. However, where consumers are unable to verify the authenticity of a QR code, only Laava can produce Smart Fingerprints.

A demonstration of the Laava Smart Fingerprint scanner

One of our partners, a premium food exporter, had their product significantly counterfeited overseas with the aid of QR codes. For this business, the QR code was a way of ensuring product authentication — 100% Australian produce. When consumers overseas scanned the QR code on their product, they were directed to the company’s website as a statement of solidarity. By buying this product, you were purchasing homegrown Australian produce.

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However, for the criminals who wanted to fake this product, all they had to do was generate a QR code online that directed a consumer to the company’s website. Overseas, counterfeiters re-created the packaging of the Australian product, filled it with sub-par non-Australian produce and then applied the QR code, labelling questionable local produce as 100% Australian produce. For any company dealing with their own counterfeited product, a public relations and brand integrity nightmare will likely follow.

For Australian businesses, the application of technologies, such as the Laava Smart Fingerprint, could be game-changing. Moreover, such technology, expands trust and integrity even further when integrated with blockchain and traceability systems. In an environment where counterfeit products have eroded consumer trust, we offer a solution to win back market-share from counterfeiters.

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