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QR Codes in Electronic document archiving

    QR Codes have been part of our daily lives for many years. The pandemic era has given them even greater visibility, whether they allow you to view a restaurant menu on your phone or to certify your vaccination status thanks to a health pass.

    A visual information exchange

    Their main challenge is to visually exchange information between a sender and a receiver: the QR Code, whether affixed to a “paper” document or presented on the screen of a smartphone, is captured by a device (often a smartphone) and decoded, makes it possible to obtain a link to a document or to give the vaccination status of an individual in a secure manner.

    Electronic document archiving is frequently found at the crossroads between physical and digital documents. It is therefore wise to ask what use can be made of QR Codes in this area.

    But before that, it is worthwhile to understand the subject a little better.

    From Barcodes to QR Codes

    QR Codes are the descendants of barcodes that we all know in mass distribution. These common barcodes, whose origin dates back to the 1950s, quickly conquered the world with their many advantages: the fact that they avoid manual entry (and the associated human error), efficiency and speed (you can access your stock in real time), with fairly minimal training and an inexpensive system to set up. They nevertheless have a major drawback: they are in one dimension, and generally cannot circulate a large amount of information (a small combination of numbers, whether it is the European standard EAN-13, or the standard American UPC).

    It was to overcome this limitation that 2D barcodes appeared in 1987. The best-known today are QR Codes, invented in 1994 by the Japanese company Denso Wave (which, to this day, still holds the intellectual property), but like 1D barcodes, there are many variants (Aztec code, PDF 417, Maxicode, DataMatrix, etc.).

    Why “QR”? This is the acronym for “Quick Response”. What characterizes the QR Code are the three small squares at the corners of the code, which allow increased speed of recognition whatever the angle of capture. Depending on its “density”, a QR Code can currently encode up to 4296 alphanumeric characters. A QR Code incorporates an elaborate error detection system, which allows devices to decode QR Codes in non-optimal conditions (tilt, blur, missing pieces), which is particularly useful in their daily use!

    What about 2D-DOC then?

    We quoted DataMatrix; the 2D-DOC format was designed by deriving from this format, which has slightly different characteristics from the QR Code. You recognize a DataMatrix by its “L” pattern on the sides of the square; it has the advantage of being able to be printed in smaller formats than QR Codes, which is why it is often used for inventory purposes. We can notice it on drug leaflets, food boxes, computer screens…

    An ID card from France contains a 2D-DOC – Source :  Ministère de l’intérieur —

    Going back to 2D-DOC, this format is designed as a “Visible Digital Seal”; it was proposed in 2012 by the National Agency for Secure Documents (ANTS). What characterizes it is that it incorporates an electronic signature to authenticate the information it contains (typically, an address and the name of a natural person). However, as a certificate could not be completely encoded within the code, it only references a publicly registered authority (there are less than ten in France). We will typically find 2D-DOCs in invoices from French operators (giving these invoices the status of tamper-proof proof of address, local authorities being equipped with devices to authenticate these codes), in the new identity card, and in the first version of the COVID certificates (the one that was originally French).

    Is a 2D-DOC really needed to authenticate information?

    The fact that the European COVID certificate, using the electronic signature, is a QR Code and not the initial French 2D-DOC, perfectly illustrates the fact that it is quite possible to integrate an electronic signature principle into a QR Code.  In fact, we could simplify by saying that the advantage of 2D-DOC is essentially its existing ecosystem (existing smartphone application, support from partner publishers, etc.). Authenticating the signature of a European Covid certificate is not done magically: it was necessary to set up a whole chain of validation, servers, web services… to be able to implement them. 2D-DOC is a Franco-French standard; will it be able to cross our borders? Nothing is less sure.

    Exploitation of QR Codes in Electronic Archiving.

    Now that these basic principles are recalled, let’s sketch out an overview of the possible use of QR Codes and/or 2D-DOCs in the electronic archiving of documents.

    During document reception

    Suppose you want to archive a document natively containing a QR Code or a 2D-DOC. If the archiving solution is able to decode this information, it can use it in different ways:

    • The code can encode metadata, or a filing plan, which will avoid redundant information in a separate deposit slip (“Data Minimalism” is good!);

    • If it is a code with electronic signature, the solution can optionally carry out a verification of this signature, thus increasing the probative value of the document by recording this verification in the system log.

    During document communication

    A document generally has a permalink in the electronic archiving system. We can then encode this permalink in a QR Code and:

                           • Propose to system users to copy/paste this “permalink QR code” into their “materialized” documents (printed media, Powerpoint slides broadcast in a conference, etc.) to refer readers or viewers to the archived document;

                           • Even affix this permalink QR code to the archived document and thus make it inseparable from the archiving system. Care must be taken when implementing such a practice that alters the document, not to modify the probative value of the original document. To do this, we can, for example, keep the original document intact and add this “communicable” version of the document to the archiving batch;

    The interest of the QR code for document versioning

    In the context of an electronic archiving system authorizing the versioning of documents, the QR code can be used to indicate to the reader if the document he is reading is “up to date” and if necessary, refer to the latest version of the digital document!

    That way, an operator reading a printed technical manual will be able to check whether the information he is reading is the most recent on the subject.

    A limited future?

    For about ten years now, we have regularly announced the imminent death of the QR code, which would no longer have any interest in a totally digitized world.

    Indeed, in a society where all information could circulate by transferring files between digital terminals, and where paper would no longer have its place, it is clear that such a way of encoding data would no longer have any interest.

    But despite permanent progress (we can cite the dematerialization of invoices increasingly encouraged by the State) we all know that these conditions are not yet met, and it is doubtful that this will be the case for several more years. Investing in the use of the QR code is therefore certainly not a bad idea!

    Mikaël Mechoulam

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