That online menu you read by scanning a QR code might still be tracking you, and privacy experts are worried

That online menu you read by scanning a QR code might still be tracking you, and privacy experts are worried
Women use a QR code to order lunch with their smart phone while outdoor dining. SDI Productions/Getty Images
  • Some digital menus are tracking your purchase history and personal data, NYT reported on Monday.
  • Offline behavior such as eating out with friends can be tracked online, worrying privacy experts.
  • QR codes can help small businesses better understand customer behavior and cut labor costs.

At many restaurants, a physical menu might be considered a bit of a vintage find.

Half of full-service restaurants in the US now use scannable QR codes, according to the National Restaurant Association. The contactless technology popularized during the pandemic allows customers to pull up digital menus on their phones and order without a server - a convenience that privacy experts say comes with a potential downside.

The New York Times reported on Monday that QR codes have increased businesses' ability to track and analyze customer behavior, with some apps collecting personal data such as order history, emails, and phone numbers.

Databases created from the data can then be used for marketing promos such as personalized discounts or recommendations, according to the Times.

Activities valued for their intrinsically offline nature - such as eating out or grabbing drinks with friends - are now becoming "part of the online advertising empire," Jay Stanely, a senior policy analyst at the ACLU told the Times.


Technology has helped minimize COVID-19 outbreaks throughout the pandemic. However, experts are concerned that some developments, such as the rapid adoption of QR codes, could compromise privacy rights.

"There have been disease outbreaks throughout human history, but never one that has taken place in the era of high-tech tracking tools and 'big data,'" Stanley wrote on the ACLU website last May.

Perhaps of utmost importance to restaurant owners is the money QR codes can save businesses hit hard during the pandemic. According to Cheqout, a QR ordering and payment system, the digital menus can help save up to 50% on labor costs, the Times reported.

While convenient and low cost, some service workers are beginning to fear that the black-and-white squares could eventually replace their jobs.