Welcome!

Wireless Authors: Carmen Gonzalez, Liz McMillan, Pat Romanski, Lori MacVittie, Elizabeth White

Related Topics: Security, Wireless, SOA & WOA

Security: Article

Quick Response, Quick Risk?

The risks presented by QR codes are really a new spin on well-established hacking tricks and exploits

Quick Response (QR) codes are intended to help direct users quickly and easily to information about products and services, but they are also starting to be used for social engineering exploits. This article looks at the emergence of QR scan scams and the rising concern for users today.

You don't have to look far these days to spot a QR code. From their humble beginnings in labelling and tracking parts used in vehicle manufacturing, these blocky little barcodes-on-steroids are being placed everywhere from product packaging, to posters and billboards, to magazines and newspapers.

QR codes are a jumping-off point from the offline to the online world. By simply scanning the code with your smartphone, people can quickly access the digital content triggered by the code - making them a marketer's dream because they make it easy to direct users toward information and services. What's more, they still retain a certain cool and curiosity factor, with users enjoying the point-and-browse convenience they offer.

However, this also makes them useful to hackers as a social engineering tool, to exploit user interest and trust and direct them to malicious websites or malware. While the concept of ‘drive-by downloads' is already well established as a stealthy tactic for stealing user data when web browsing, QR codes offer a new method for manipulating mobile users in a similar way.

A Matter of Trust
The issue with QR codes is that it forces users to trust the integrity of the code's provider and assume that the destination it leads to is legitimate. This is almost impossible for individuals to gauge because the QR code actually conceals the site and content it leads to. While social engineering exploits have evolved from the email worms of the early 2000s, they still rely on human curiosity to see what might happen when users click on an attachment or a QR code is scanned, which often leads to security problems.

Furthermore, QR code-scanning applications running on smartphones can provide a direct link to other smartphone capabilities, such as email, SMS, location-based services and application installations - further extending the potential risks to mobile devices. Let's look at how a potential QR code-based exploit could be mounted, and then at how to defend against it.

Code Read
The first step in mounting a QR exploit is to distribute the code, to get it in front of potential victims. This could happen by embedding the QR code in an email - making it an elaborate phishing exploit - or by distributing plausible-looking physical documents with QR code on them, for example flyers at a trade show, or even stickers applied to genuine advertisement billboards.

Once the QR code is distributed, the attacker has a multitude of scam options to choose from. At a basic level, the code could simply redirect users to fake websites for phishing purposes - such as a fake online store or a payment site.

More sophisticated exploits involve hackers using the QR code to direct users to websites that will ‘jailbreak' their mobile device - that is, allow root access to the device's operating system and install malware. This is essentially a drive-by download attack on the device, enabling additional software or applications, such as key loggers and GPS trackers, to be installed without the user's knowledge or permission.

Targeting the Mobile Wallet
Perhaps the biggest potential risk to users is the rising use of mobile banking and payments via smartphones. With the ability of QR codes to jailbreak devices and tap into applications, this could give hackers virtual pick-pocket access to mobile wallets, especially as QR-based payment solutions already exist and are in use. While the uptake of these is currently small, it will grow as public acceptance of QR codes increases.

What can organizations and individual users do to mitigate the risks from QR codes? The most important precaution is being able to establish exactly what link or resource the QR code is going to launch when it's scanned. Some (not all) QR scanning applications give this visibility and - critically - ask the user to confirm if they wish to take the action. This gives users the opportunity to assess the link's validity before the code is activated.

For corporate smartphones, consider deploying data encryption so that even if a malicious QR code manages to install a Trojan on the device, sensitive data is still protected and not immediately accessible or usable by hackers.

In conclusion, the risks presented by QR codes are really a new spin on well-established hacking tricks and exploits. The security basics still apply - be cautious about what you scan, and use data encryption where possible. Or put simply: look before the QR leap.

More Stories By Tomer Teller

Tomer Teller is security evangelist at Check Point. During his six years at Check Point, he has been working as a researcher and developer on variety of large scale projects, as well as a speaker at multiple IT security conferences and lecturer at Check Point headquarters.

Specialized in both high-level and low level software engineering, Teller devotes his free time to various projects and original security research. He holds a BS in computer science and is a proud owner of a patent in the field of browser exploitation.

Comments (0)

Share your thoughts on this story.

Add your comment
You must be signed in to add a comment. Sign-in | Register

In accordance with our Comment Policy, we encourage comments that are on topic, relevant and to-the-point. We will remove comments that include profanity, personal attacks, racial slurs, threats of violence, or other inappropriate material that violates our Terms and Conditions, and will block users who make repeated violations. We ask all readers to expect diversity of opinion and to treat one another with dignity and respect.


@ThingsExpo Stories
The 3rd International Internet of @ThingsExpo, co-located with the 16th International Cloud Expo - to be held June 9-11, 2015, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY - announces that its Call for Papers is now open. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the biggest idea since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago.
Cultural, regulatory, environmental, political and economic (CREPE) conditions over the past decade are creating cross-industry solution spaces that require processes and technologies from both the Internet of Things (IoT), and Data Management and Analytics (DMA). These solution spaces are evolving into Sensor Analytics Ecosystems (SAE) that represent significant new opportunities for organizations of all types. Public Utilities throughout the world, providing electricity, natural gas and water, are pursuing SmartGrid initiatives that represent one of the more mature examples of SAE. We have s...
The security devil is always in the details of the attack: the ones you've endured, the ones you prepare yourself to fend off, and the ones that, you fear, will catch you completely unaware and defenseless. The Internet of Things (IoT) is nothing if not an endless proliferation of details. It's the vision of a world in which continuous Internet connectivity and addressability is embedded into a growing range of human artifacts, into the natural world, and even into our smartphones, appliances, and physical persons. In the IoT vision, every new "thing" - sensor, actuator, data source, data con...
How do APIs and IoT relate? The answer is not as simple as merely adding an API on top of a dumb device, but rather about understanding the architectural patterns for implementing an IoT fabric. There are typically two or three trends: Exposing the device to a management framework Exposing that management framework to a business centric logic Exposing that business layer and data to end users. This last trend is the IoT stack, which involves a new shift in the separation of what stuff happens, where data lives and where the interface lies. For instance, it's a mix of architectural styles ...
The Internet of Things is tied together with a thin strand that is known as time. Coincidentally, at the core of nearly all data analytics is a timestamp. When working with time series data there are a few core principles that everyone should consider, especially across datasets where time is the common boundary. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Jim Scott, Director of Enterprise Strategy & Architecture at MapR Technologies, discussed single-value, geo-spatial, and log time series data. By focusing on enterprise applications and the data center, he will use OpenTSDB as an example t...
An entirely new security model is needed for the Internet of Things, or is it? Can we save some old and tested controls for this new and different environment? In his session at @ThingsExpo, New York's at the Javits Center, Davi Ottenheimer, EMC Senior Director of Trust, reviewed hands-on lessons with IoT devices and reveal a new risk balance you might not expect. Davi Ottenheimer, EMC Senior Director of Trust, has more than nineteen years' experience managing global security operations and assessments, including a decade of leading incident response and digital forensics. He is co-author of t...
The Internet of Things will greatly expand the opportunities for data collection and new business models driven off of that data. In her session at @ThingsExpo, Esmeralda Swartz, CMO of MetraTech, discussed how for this to be effective you not only need to have infrastructure and operational models capable of utilizing this new phenomenon, but increasingly service providers will need to convince a skeptical public to participate. Get ready to show them the money!
The Internet of Things will put IT to its ultimate test by creating infinite new opportunities to digitize products and services, generate and analyze new data to improve customer satisfaction, and discover new ways to gain a competitive advantage across nearly every industry. In order to help corporate business units to capitalize on the rapidly evolving IoT opportunities, IT must stand up to a new set of challenges. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Jeff Kaplan, Managing Director of THINKstrategies, will examine why IT must finally fulfill its role in support of its SBUs or face a new round of...
One of the biggest challenges when developing connected devices is identifying user value and delivering it through successful user experiences. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Mike Kuniavsky, Principal Scientist, Innovation Services at PARC, described an IoT-specific approach to user experience design that combines approaches from interaction design, industrial design and service design to create experiences that go beyond simple connected gadgets to create lasting, multi-device experiences grounded in people's real needs and desires.
Enthusiasm for the Internet of Things has reached an all-time high. In 2013 alone, venture capitalists spent more than $1 billion dollars investing in the IoT space. With "smart" appliances and devices, IoT covers wearable smart devices, cloud services to hardware companies. Nest, a Google company, detects temperatures inside homes and automatically adjusts it by tracking its user's habit. These technologies are quickly developing and with it come challenges such as bridging infrastructure gaps, abiding by privacy concerns and making the concept a reality. These challenges can't be addressed w...
The Domain Name Service (DNS) is one of the most important components in networking infrastructure, enabling users and services to access applications by translating URLs (names) into IP addresses (numbers). Because every icon and URL and all embedded content on a website requires a DNS lookup loading complex sites necessitates hundreds of DNS queries. In addition, as more internet-enabled ‘Things' get connected, people will rely on DNS to name and find their fridges, toasters and toilets. According to a recent IDG Research Services Survey this rate of traffic will only grow. What's driving t...
Connected devices and the Internet of Things are getting significant momentum in 2014. In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, Jim Hunter, Chief Scientist & Technology Evangelist at Greenwave Systems, examined three key elements that together will drive mass adoption of the IoT before the end of 2015. The first element is the recent advent of robust open source protocols (like AllJoyn and WebRTC) that facilitate M2M communication. The second is broad availability of flexible, cost-effective storage designed to handle the massive surge in back-end data in a world where timely analytics is e...
Scott Jenson leads a project called The Physical Web within the Chrome team at Google. Project members are working to take the scalability and openness of the web and use it to talk to the exponentially exploding range of smart devices. Nearly every company today working on the IoT comes up with the same basic solution: use my server and you'll be fine. But if we really believe there will be trillions of these devices, that just can't scale. We need a system that is open a scalable and by using the URL as a basic building block, we open this up and get the same resilience that the web enjoys.
"Matrix is an ambitious open standard and implementation that's set up to break down the fragmentation problems that exist in IP messaging and VoIP communication," explained John Woolf, Technical Evangelist at Matrix, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at @ThingsExpo, held Nov 4–6, 2014, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
We are reaching the end of the beginning with WebRTC, and real systems using this technology have begun to appear. One challenge that faces every WebRTC deployment (in some form or another) is identity management. For example, if you have an existing service – possibly built on a variety of different PaaS/SaaS offerings – and you want to add real-time communications you are faced with a challenge relating to user management, authentication, authorization, and validation. Service providers will want to use their existing identities, but these will have credentials already that are (hopefully) i...
P2P RTC will impact the landscape of communications, shifting from traditional telephony style communications models to OTT (Over-The-Top) cloud assisted & PaaS (Platform as a Service) communication services. The P2P shift will impact many areas of our lives, from mobile communication, human interactive web services, RTC and telephony infrastructure, user federation, security and privacy implications, business costs, and scalability. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Robin Raymond, Chief Architect at Hookflash, will walk through the shifting landscape of traditional telephone and voice services ...
Explosive growth in connected devices. Enormous amounts of data for collection and analysis. Critical use of data for split-second decision making and actionable information. All three are factors in making the Internet of Things a reality. Yet, any one factor would have an IT organization pondering its infrastructure strategy. How should your organization enhance its IT framework to enable an Internet of Things implementation? In his session at Internet of @ThingsExpo, James Kirkland, Chief Architect for the Internet of Things and Intelligent Systems at Red Hat, described how to revolutioniz...
Bit6 today issued a challenge to the technology community implementing Web Real Time Communication (WebRTC). To leap beyond WebRTC’s significant limitations and fully leverage its underlying value to accelerate innovation, application developers need to consider the entire communications ecosystem.
The definition of IoT is not new, in fact it’s been around for over a decade. What has changed is the public's awareness that the technology we use on a daily basis has caught up on the vision of an always on, always connected world. If you look into the details of what comprises the IoT, you’ll see that it includes everything from cloud computing, Big Data analytics, “Things,” Web communication, applications, network, storage, etc. It is essentially including everything connected online from hardware to software, or as we like to say, it’s an Internet of many different things. The difference ...
Cloud Expo 2014 TV commercials will feature @ThingsExpo, which was launched in June, 2014 at New York City's Javits Center as the largest 'Internet of Things' event in the world.