Restaurant menu QR codes may be tracking you and invading your privacy — here's how

QR code
(Image credit: Getty)

Restaurant QR codes aren't as innocuous as they may seem. After the pandemic hit, many restaurants ditched their germy, laminated physical menus for a more hygienic option: QR codes that lead patrons to an online menu. Seems harmless, right? Well, a new report from The New York Times reveals that these machine-readable labels may invade your privacy.

Businesses can implement tracking tools into these pixelated, black-and-white codes for targeting certain customers and gathering analytics, which is raising red flags among pro-privacy pundits.

Restaurant QR codes are concerning security experts

Citing the National Restaurant Association, The New York Times pointed out that half of U.S. restaurants now use QR codes. Sixty-one percent of restaurants plan to continue offering contactless payment options to dine-in customers, according to a Square's Future of Restaurants 2021 report.

QR codes aren't going anywhere any time soon, and unfortunately, invasive tracking tech isn't going out of style either. Some restaurants have built a database of their customers' order history, email and phone number.

"People don't understand that when you use a QR code, it inserts the entire apparatus of online tracking between you and your meal. Suddenly, your online activity of sitting down for a meal has become part of the online advertising empire," said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

Another marketing expert, Chief Executive Sharat Potharaju from Mobstac, said that business owners have no intentions of relinquishing the benefits that QR codes have brought to their bottom line (they help restaurants save up to 50% in labor costs). Not only can they bundle deals and special offers to patrons, but they gather data on customers' spending habits.

The New York Times noted that Mr. Yum, startup that sells the tech for creating QR-code menus to restaurants, admitted that the digital menu contains cookies that track customers' purchase history as well as their phone number and protected payment information. However, Kim Teo, a co-founder of Mr. Yum, said that restaurants' customer data is only available to that establishment and the information is not sold to third parties.

Sifting through the commentary under the New York Times story, some don't mind the tracking. "Not having to wait for a server to get and pay the check makes it worth it," a poster said. "Some people are too ready to put convenience above personal safety," another replied.

Whether we like it or not, restaurants are gathering your data for marketing promotions, and curating personalized discounts and deals.

Kimberly Gedeon

Kimberly Gedeon, holding a Master's degree in International Journalism, launched her career as a journalist for MadameNoire's business beat in 2013. She loved translating stuffy stories about the economy, personal finance and investing into digestible, easy-to-understand, entertaining stories for young women of color. During her time on the business beat, she discovered her passion for tech as she dove into articles about tech entrepreneurship, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and the latest tablets. After eight years of freelancing, dabbling in a myriad of beats, she's finally found a home at Laptop Mag that accepts her as the crypto-addicted, virtual reality-loving, investing-focused, tech-fascinated nerd she is. Woot!