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30 Sep 2020

What are QR codes and are they safe to use?

The NHS COVID-19 app, bars, restaurants and other locations now use QR codes to send information to your phone, but how do they work?

To help monitor the spread of coronavirus, the government is now relying partly on QR codes (or Quick Response codes) to track areas at 'high risk'. If you're not too familiar with the technology, we'll help you get up to speed.

QR codes are all over the place at the moment. You may have spotted these little black and white squares outside your favourite restaurant, or in the reception area at your local gym. The technology isn't exactly new (these barcodes have been around since 1994), but QR codes are now more important than ever before.

Keep scrolling to find out how the new NHS COVID-19 app makes use of the technology. Whether you're using an Android or iOS smartphone, we've also got some links to free QR scanner apps you might want to try out.

What are QR codes?

Quick Response Codes (more commonly known as QR codes) are two-dimensional barcodes that can point you to an online destination such as a website or download link. They're essentially hyperlinks in image form - you may have seen them inside magazines and newspapers or at the top of business cards.

To interact with a QR code, you point your phone camera at the shape so your device can act as a scanner. A message with a clickable link will pop up on your mobile.

Anybody can create and share a QR code using a mobile app or website. For example, scan this QR code above and your smartphone or tablet will point you towards the Which? website.

Recently, due to the coronavirus pandemic and social distancing restrictions, QR codes are appearing outside venues so you can 'check in'. This helps to monitor the number of people meeting in public spaces. Many restaurants have also been using QR systems to allow diners to join virtual queues.

Checking in using the NHS COVID-19 app isn't mandatory, so venues are also meant to maintain paper logs for customers who don't have a smartphone on them.

How do QR codes work with the NHS COVID-19 app?

There has been a surge of interest surrounding QR codes recently because of a new NHS app linked to tracking coronavirus cases. The free NHS COVID-19 app, which is available for anybody aged 16 or over who lives in England or Wales, is also known as the 'Test and Trace app'.

QR codes play a key part in the experience. Restaurants and bars across the UK are now being encouraged to display their own authorised QR codes on posters and signs.

The idea is that you arrive at the venue and scan the code so there's a record of you being in the area. If, further down the line, that area is identified as a high-risk area for coronavirus, you'll get an alert as your phone knows you've recently visited.

Other key features of the NHS COVID-19 app include:

  • Postcode search - check the level of coronavirus risk in your postcode district.
  • coronavirus symptom checker - follow on-screen instructions to see if you need to order a test.
  • Trace - find out when you've been near other app users who have tested positive for coronavirus

A message on the NHS website says: '[The app] is the fastest way of knowing when you're at risk from coronavirus (COVID-19). The quicker you know, the quicker you can alert your loved ones, and your community.

The more of us that use it, the better we can control coronavirus. Protect your loved ones. Please download the app.'

How to download the NHS COVID-19 app

Downloading the app isn't tricky at all. If you're on Android, just search for 'NHS COVID-19' on the Google Play Store. Apple owners will need to enter the same search term on the Apple App Store.

Alternatively, you can click the links below to head straight to the download pages:

NHS app contract tracing on a phone screen

Are QR codes safe to use?

Not all of them are safe. Considering anybody can create a QR code and have it point to any online destination they want to, there's room for scammers to take advantage of the technology.

For example, a poster on the side of a building might encourage you to scan a code and fill out a form for a reward, but in actual fact, you could be handing over personal information to sinister third parties. QR codes can also be configured to download a file to your smartphone without you giving the thumbs up - data-grabbing apps running in the background may be able to collect and sell your personal data.

In other words, there's nothing stopping somebody printing out a malicious QR code and planting it somewhere where it will catch some attention.

With this in mind, make sure any QR code you're about to scan is being presented to you by a reputable source. A QR code you spot at the entrance of a well-known restaurant is safer than an unmarked code you spot on a window at a bus stop, for example.

How do I scan QR codes?

Most modern Android smartphones will have a QR scanner built into the operating system. If not, you can easily download a QR scanner from the Google Play Store - there are thousands of options to choose from. But crucially, if you're downloading a QR app, make sure it's backed by positive user reviews. It's also a good idea to try and pick an app from a brand or developer you recognise.

On an iPhone, support for scanning QR codes is built into the default camera app. Once you open the Camera app, select the rear-facing camera and hold your device in front of a QR code. Your smartphone will automatically recognise what it's staring at and generate a notification. Tapping that alert will send you to the website the QR code is linked to.

Best free apps to scan QR codes

There are loads of QR code scanning apps on the app stores of Android and Apple devices. Most are free, but many contain ads, and sometimes this can make it difficult to choose the correct link from results after you scan a code. Here are two options from reputable antivirus companies that shouldn't disappoint.

Trend Micro QR Scanner

Available on Android

Antivirus maker Trend Micro has its own QR scanner app on Android. You point your camera at a code and line it up with the markers on-screen.

Unlike some other QR scanner apps, Trend Micro QR Scanner will display a preview of the URL generated by the code - you need to click 'Open' before you can be redirected. If the app spots a URL that could potentially point you to a malware-ridden website, you'll get a warning.

A history of the QR codes you've scanned is stored on the app, so you can revisit old links in just a couple of taps.

Kaspersky QR Scanner

Available on Android and iOS

This QR scanner app works for both iOS and Android gadgets. If you scan a QR code within the app that looks harmful, a message appears that says: 'We've protected you against a dangerous link. This QR code contains a phishing link or malicious link'.

If you scan a QR code on a business card, the app will let you store contact details straight to your smartphone with the 'create contact' option.