How the humble QR Code could foil an authoritarian power grab using the fear pandemic from coronavirus.

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This is the fourth in our series on how Coronavirus is changing our world. The first looked at how this is crashing legacy financial markets. This was the destructive part of creative destruction. The second in the series was a hopium dream of a positive post Coronavirus future in general terms – not business as usual but better. The third outlined 6 technology silver linings in the dark Coronavirus cloud. In this post we stray into geo politics to answer the question “what if authoritarians use the fear pandemic from coronavirus and technology from social media to AI to payments and 5G to grab more power?”

Technology is neutral; it can be used by authoritarians or by the people. The future can be dark or light depending on what we do. Those who want a light future may want to reach for help from a very boring technology called the QR code.

The fear derived from 911 was mostly spectator fear. Unless you lived in downtown NYC, you watched events on the media. The fear pandemic from coronavirus is more real and personal for almost everyone on the planet. We all face restrictions and threats to our health and the health of our loved ones.

Nearly 20 years after 911, count the cost in lives and money lost from endless wars and from our loss of personal freedoms. Imagine what authoritarian power grabbers around the world will do with the fear pandemic from coronavirus. 21st century authoritarians also have access to technology from social media to AI to payments and 5G that would have been the dream of 20th  century authoritarians.

China is embarking on a PR charm offensive, featuring their response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many are cynical about this and do not believe the data coming out of China. Sadly the politicized response from America is equally distrusted by many people. 

Authoritarians everywhere are figuring out how to use the fear pandemic from coronavirus and technology from social media to AI to payments and 5G to grab more power.

So should we all just give up and resign ourselves to a bleak future that  is mashup of 1984 and Brave New World?

Fortunately freedom loving people could get help from some humble technology called the QR Code.

We have featured QR code technology many times on Daily Fintech (see here for search on our archives). This post is a good intro.

This is how this relates to the fear pandemic from coronavirus. It now looks likely that some form of antibody testing is viable. This has three big benefits. Those who have been tested as having immunity can:

  • go to work, restarting the economy and putting food on the table
  • work or volunteer in hospitals
  • donate blood to help cure people who are already sick.

The less obvious benefit is reducing fear. Imagine seeing somebody show you their immunity card. You are not afraid to be around them. You can shake their hand, high five them, hug them all quite safely. Of course you have to trust that immunity card and it has to be visible, which is where the QR Code comes in. Let’s say your QR Code enables a QR Code scanner to see exactly what test they had and when and who administered the test;  full transparency generates trust.  The QR code showing your immunity is a kind of passport. QR Code scanners are cheap. Any shop/cafe/restaurant owner for example can have one. The QR code can also be embedded into paper and plastic cards issued by governments.

The key to this kind of people-powered technology is:

  • Consumers consciously decide if they want to wear the passport.
  • Anybody with a QR Code scanner can read your passport.

Now contrast that with fear-powered technology that authoritarians love:

  • Consumers legally sign up, but are not really conscious of the tradeoffs
  • The data is controlled by a few centralised institutions 

It is your technology and your choice.

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The post How the humble QR Code could foil an authoritarian power grab using the fear pandemic from coronavirus. appeared first on Daily Fintech.

The return of the QR Code and China’s obsession to it

 

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A few days ago, I had a LinkedIn discussion with Richard Turrin on QR Codes and their relevance in today’s go-cashless world. A few commentators on the post felt QR codes were the thing of the post, and I had a different view. I believe, in a world that’s getting digitised in a hurry, QR code is what bridges the digital world with brick and mortar.

QR Codes have gone through ups and downs since they were first created in 1994 by Japan’s automobile industry. QR – stood for “Quick Response”. However, those were days when mobile phones were clunky and the user journeys weren’t as friction-free as the ones we have these days.

When a customer scanned a QR code, an app or a website would be launched on the mobile using EDGE or GPRS. Once the website came up, users would have to use the clunky interface to fill in relevant details. I guess, that was enough to kill the QR code – or so many thought at that time.

QR Codes are more efficient than Barcodes because they are able to hold more information than Barcodes. This is because, QR codes have a two dimensional layout, where as with Barcodes it is just a one dimensional horizontal layout. And purely from a marketing perspective, QR Codes can be customised with a firm’s brand on it, unlike bar codes.

Utility of QR Codes seem better than Barcodes. But are they safe to store our information? For example, can I store my bank card details in a QR code and claim it is more secure? It certainly is – atleast in most scenarios.

Credit card thefts and frauds come in different shapes and forms. Even in a contactless payment mode, account details are still transmitted to the point of sale (PoS) device. So if the PoS device is hacked, hackers can get hold of the customer’s payment details. If at the point of sale, there is an issue with the internet, the customer experience could be poor.

The other hiccup is the case of lost devices, as QR codes do not check for user identity. This can however be overcome by asking for biometric information from the user at the time of registering. It could also be a selfie of the user at registration. At the point of sale, the device using QR codes, may have to use some ways of identifying the user.

Since QR codes rely on Wi-Fi networks, a hacker could get into the network and overlay fake QR codes. And then there is this issue of different variations of QR codes released by different vendors. There needs to be standards for ease of use from a customer’s stand point.

Despite some of these downsides, what makes QR codes special?

  • Simplicity
  • Versatility
  • Expanding mobile internet and
  • Smartphones adoption.

With better internet access and smartphone penetration, QR codes have become more common place in Asia. Smartphone penetration in China has risen to 63% and to 35% in Asia as a whole. In Latin America (Argentina), customers have taken to QR codes as it is a simple interface for the unbanked to perform digital transactions.

Pictures showing Alipay and WeChat QR codes in China and PayTM QR Codes in India have brought the concept back to life – in a big way. In India, PayTM are running campaigns to get millions of small and medium entreprises onto QR Codes. In Africa, firms like Dumapay are using QRCode to simplify the point of sale payments process. It has become easy for a roadside shop to accept payments using a QR code print out and no Point of Sale device.

Apart from payments, QR Codes can be used for several other interactions. They can be use for

  • Offering discounts,
  • Sending a pre-defined message,
  • Sharing contact details
  • Embedded pricing information
  • Linking to marketing videos or pages

China has taken the use of QR codes to a whole new level, as observed in the picture below. A quick google search on China and QR Codes reveal some really cool use of this tool.

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As QR Codes are versatile, most top apps like Pinterest, Snapchat, Wechat and device manufacturers like Xiaomi, Motorola, Samsung, Huawei all have inbuilt QR Code readers.

But in the wrong hands, QR Codes can be used to lead a customer to a malicious page and get hacked in the process. There is definitely caution needed when using QR Codes.

It may be hard for the west to embrace QR Codes like Asia, Latin America (in some parts) and even Africa. But several firms across the world are creating their own customised QR Codes to stay relevant. QR Codes may not have succeeded in the past and they may not be the future either. But they most certainly have a place in the present.


Arunkumar Krishnakumar is a Venture Capital investor at Green Shores Capital focusing on Inclusion and a podcast host.

I have no positions or commercial relationships with the companies or people mentioned. I am not receiving compensation for this post.

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