With some calling 2021 “the year of the QR code,” now is a good time to take a deep dive into this ubiquitous technology and explore how it started, how it works, and how effective QR code security is.


What’s more, how can QR codes be used as an anti-counterfeiting measure? Manufacturers and consumers alike want to know: are QR codes actually a good way to track and authenticate products?


The History of QR Codes

Given how ubiquitous QR codes have become, popping up on everything from business cards to gravestones, it’s hard to believe that just 30 years ago, they didn’t exist.


They were first developed in Japan in 1994 at a company called Denso, which produced automotive parts. One of the company’s employees, an engineer named Hara Masahiro, noticed that the standard line barcodes they used to track their products were inefficient and time-consuming to use. The barcodes could only store limited amounts of information, so in some cases, product boxes had up to ten barcodes on them, and they had to be scanned multiple times during the shipping process.


Masahiro saw the need for a new kind of technology that could store more information. He had a flash of insight when playing a grid-based strategy game that gave him the idea to create a two-dimensional pattern of black and white square dots. His team developed what ultimately became known as quick response codes, or QR codes for short.


QR codes became part of mainstream, everyday use when cellphones with cameras began hitting the market, giving the average person a way to quickly scan and access information using their digital device.


How QR Codes Are Used to Track and Trace Products

Although QR codes are used in a wide variety of ways today, one of their most important functions remains tracking and tracing products.


Because QR codes can hold so much more information than standard barcodes (4000 alphanumeric characters in QR codes versus just 20 in barcodes), they are a popular choice for inventory management.


The basic process of using QR codes to track and trace products involves printing QR codes and affixing them to products. The codes are scanned at every link in the supply chain, from production site to final delivery point, providing a trail of information about where the product was and at what time as well as who handled it.


Why Product Authentication Is Important

With counterfeit goods and products on the rise, product authentication is more important than ever. Product authentication ensures that manufacturers have control over their supply chain and assures consumers that they are getting the genuine product they paid for and not a counterfeit version.


Counterfeit products are a bigger problem than most consumers realize. They’re not just an issue in flea markets and street vendors. They’re everywhere and they affect products of all kinds, including plastics and medicines. With the explosion of popularity of online shopping, which has only accelerated in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential for counterfeit products to reach consumers is bigger than ever. They not only put consumers at risk of being ripped off, by paying premium prices for inferior products, they can also potentially cause physical harm to consumers.


Are QR Codes Effective at Authenticating Products?

While QR codes provide a great many benefits, the truth is that they are not effective at product authentication. There are several reasons for this.


  • QR codes can be erased or removed from products

Just like serial numbers can be filed off electronics and other high-value products and then sold on the counterfeit market, so can QR codes simply be removed from products, erasing the supply chain information.


  • QR codes can be copied

QR codes are simple to recreate and reproduce. That’s part of why they are so popular in inventory management—they’re easy to generate and affix to products. Unfortunately, it’s also what makes them vulnerable to counterfeiting. Bad actors can simply copy a manufacturer’s QR code and pass it off as genuine.


  • QR codes can be faked

Likewise, QR codes can be faked. Many consumers don’t even bother to scan a QR code on a product. They merely see it included on the product and assume that it means the product is legitimate. Counterfeiters can use this to their advantage by creating fake QR codes that contain inaccurate information or no information whatsoever.

Since QR codes have so many weaknesses when it comes to product authentication, they can actually create a false sense of security. Consumers may see a QR code on a product and just assume that its presence means the product is authentic, not realizing that a QR code on its own is not a security feature.


Authentication Features Are Needed to Improve QR Code Security

In order to transform QR codes into a reliable anti-counterfeiting tool, extra features need to be built into them to make them less easy to copy and fake.


One way this can be accomplished is through the addition of micro holes during the QR code printing stage. For example, AlpVision has developed what is known as a “secured QR code,” which incorporates these micro holes in the black areas of the QR code. They are included randomly and are detectable by a dedicated smartphone application. The design of the QR code is unchanged, so this added security feature can’t be seen by the naked eye, but it is picked up when it is scanned through the app.


Counterfeiters who try to copy the secured QR code won’t be able to replicate these micro holes, which are just 20 to 40 microns, so they are a highly effective way to authenticate products.


Why Control of the Supply Chain Is Important

A secured QR code allows for effective supply chain management. This is important because managing the supply chain is essential for streamlining operations, tracking inventory, maximizing profits, and proving to customers that the products are legitimate. In short, proper supply chain management is key to pretty much everything, from quality control to operational efficiency to brand reputation.


Who Is Responsible for Counterfeit Products

Without tight control of the supply chain, counterfeit products can find their way into the hands of the consumer. To prevent the damage this can do to both the consumer and the brand’s reputation, actors at every point in the supply chain must be held responsible for the authenticity of the products they are handling.


Even though they recognize the seriousness of counterfeiting, many companies are at a loss as to how to hold actors in the supply chain responsible for counterfeit products. It’s no longer enough to rely on one form of security to deter counterfeiters. The counterfeit market has become so sophisticated that counterfeiters are able to make imitation products that are virtually indistinguishable by consumers and even by many industry experts as well. This is why advanced and invisible security technologies like secured QR code are one of the best available solutions.


When these kinds of solutions are implemented, it becomes much simpler to identify when and where counterfeit products have made their way into the supply chain. This information empowers companies to hold those bad actors responsible for contaminating the supply chain.


Secure Your Supply Chain with Proven QR Code Security Features from AlpVision

Counterfeiting continues to be a growing problem that affects both manufacturers and consumers. It’s no longer enough to rely on a single security feature to protect your products and strong QR code security requires more than just generating QR codes. No matter what kind of product you create, you need additional layers of security to enhance your QR codes so that you can track, trace, and authenticate your products at every step of the supply chain.


At AlpVision, our mission is to develop the most cutting-edge anti-counterfeiting solutions that are simple to use but impossible to copy or fake. Find out more about how AlpVision’s anti-counterfeiting solutions can protect your products.


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