QR codes: Easier pandemic dining, but more data mining and threat to waiters’ work hours

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If you’ve been to a restaurant recently, you may have been asked to use a QR code to access a digital menu. It’s a black and white square you can scan with your phone, and when accessed, can be used to browse food options, order a meal, or interact with a server. This way of dining might be here to stay, due to the amount of customer data that can be collected from those who use QR codes. That data includes the list of best-selling dishes, a customer’s order history, and even their credit card information. 

QR code use in restaurants and bars became popular partly because of the CDC’s COVID-19 safety guidance. Establishments had to either use disposable menus or disinfect menus between each use. That could have led to excessive waste and/or work for restaurant employees. All that’s according to New York Times technology reporter Erin Woo. 

“They were also dealing with changing supply chains, and so what they would be able to actually serve would vary day by day,” Woo says. “Rather than having to reprint the menu every time, having a QR code menu made it a lot easier to just insert or delete a line.”

Woo says that data on QR codes and e-commerce sites can be tracked the same way — via cookies that store email addresses, order history, and payment information.

Due to the simplicity of a QR code — a piece of paper with pixelated black and white squares — Woo notes privacy watchers are concerned about the potential rise of fraudulent codes. 

“For consumers, it's really important to make sure that you know what you're scanning, you know where that's coming from, because that is definitely a possibility that you can hack or have a fake QR code, and then people are just putting in their contact information, even their payment information.”

Woo says the QR code technology could also spell trouble for employees. The owner of San Francisco bar Teeth told her that QR codes help him cut the labor costs of ordering and payment. A customer at Teeth, whose job is a server at a different bar, told Woo that he fears it could cut into his work hours, though it’s convenient as a customer. 

“He's worried that it'll put him out of his job, or it'll mean cutting down on his hours or his co-workers' hours if the bar implements it. So he was saying that people depend on those 40 hours. So when bar owners and restaurant owners are talking about the labor costs they’re saving … [that] also has really real impacts for the people who depend on that money.” 



  • Erin Woo - technology reporter at the NY Times


Michell Eloy