One of the very few beneficiaries of the Coronavirus pandemic is the QR Code, that little square of black-and-white patterns that looks like an untuned television channel.
A mere 27 years after it was invented, the QR Code has gone from obscurity to ubiquity as Governments around the world realised it was the perfect way to let people check in to restaurants and other venues and be traced later if they’d come into contact with virus carriers.
All they had to do was aim their cellphones at the little square and it would register their details - hundreds of times quicker than a member of staff having to ask everyone for their name and address and phone number and write them down in a book.
People who’d never heard of a QR Code and had no idea their smartphone had a built-in QR scanner found themselves scanning the squares at restaurants and bars as if they’d been doing it all their lives.
Finally, after all those years in relative obscurity, the QR Code had gone mainstream.
Until then, the mysterious-looking squares had appeared on parcels and pallets and were only used in civilian life by young people who were accustomed to scanning their way in and out of nightclubs and responding to student offers on fly-posted adverts.
The problem, for those of us who are older or wider or at least more cautious, is that one QR Code looks much like another to we humans.
Almost as soon as the first QR codes began appearing in public and urging us to scan them, criminals saw an opportunity just waiting to be grabbed with both hands.
All they had to do was paste their own malicious but indistinguishable QR Code over the original on the poster and the spyware it activated would lead anyone scanning it to places they didn’t want to go.
Instead of opening the web page the poster intended, it could take users to a booby-trapped lookalike website that could hijack their data, wipe their bank accounts, or send premium-rate texts at $50 a time to every single contact in their address book.
It could take over their phones, embed malicious code, install ransomware, surreptitiously download every private or intimate picture or video they’d ever taken, and leave them wide open to blackmail, intimidation, or worse.
It’s become, as John Le Carré might have called it, The Spy Who Came In Through The Code.
Never since the Trojans dragged that gift-horse through the gates of their previously impregnable city have we been in such danger of letting the enemy right through our defences.
The first time a graphic designer friend asked me to scan a QR Code, I refused. I’d checked my date of birth, and I wasn’t born yesterday.
How, I asked him, will I know if it’s the QR code that you and your company made, or a malicious one that someone’s stuck over it?
And if everyone who scans the code on your client’s posters has their phone hijacked, wiped, or held to ransom, are you and your client sufficiently well-insured to compensate everyone who’ll sue you, never mind the damage to your client’s reputation?
He had no answer. And I carried on not scanning QR Codes for years until I found myself in a Marks & Spencer’s cafe at the beginning of the pandemic and had to scan one or eat elsewhere.
People looked at me oddly as I ran my fingers over the sign to see if a new QR Code had been stuck over the original, and the staff probably thought I was paranoid, but it’s a measure you might wish to take, while being careful that you don’t pick up the virus by touching the same surface that other cautious souls have done.
Other than that, anti-virus companies including Kaspersky offer QR Code scanners as apps that can detect a fake code and prevent it doing any damage to your phone, which might be a wise precaution.
If it’s helping reduce the spread of infection, we really need to carry on scanning - but at least now you can protect your phone from catching a virus, too.
You read it here first, in black-and-white.
• If you scan the QR code in the picture accompanying this story, it will take you to the Amazon Kindle Store page for my comic novel, A Prize To Die For. The worst that can do is make you laugh uncontrollably, according to some of the reviewers. You have been warned. And if you’re reading this in the UK, this QR Code will take you to my novel.