Barcodes, A Sick Wife, and Long Lines Made it Happen

Barcodes, A Sick Wife, and Long Lines Made it Happen

Problems of Yesteryear

Imagine receiving news that your spouse, who is away on a business trip, is very ill. To make matters worse, the way the news was delivered to you took days for you to receive it, and by the time you acknowledged the fact, your spouse had already passed away. This was Samuel Morse’s experience when his wife passed away in 1825.

Now let’s talk about the long lines at stores; stick with me here. Given the ease of access to same-day shipping, self-checkout, and in-store pickup, standing in line to make a purchase has fallen out of favor. If you do opt to shop in stores, most places will give you the option of standing in line at multiple self-checkout counters or being helped by a cashier, and both lines still seem too long to most. Now, imagine that shipping was not as widely available, and to purchase an item, you more than likely have to come in-store, and the cashier has to input every single item and its price manually. That “long” wait just multiplied.

What That Did For Us Today

What do these two situations have in common? Well, they both presented a challenge, and both inspired someone to overcome them and somehow the solution to one inspired the solution to the other. The first challenge ignited the development of the Morse Code. Morse code is a way to communicate that uses a series of repeated dots and dashes to represent letters, numbers, and symbols. Samuel Morse and Alfred Vail developed it in the 19th century to transmit messages over long distances using telegraphs.

Samuel Morse initiated this project after receiving news of his wife’s illness in 1825 while she was away for business. This tragic situation is what made him realize the dire need for quicker long-distance communication. Mechanical Engineer and friend of Samuel Morse, Alfred Vail, played a huge role in developing Morse code.

The long-line experience is something we can all relate to. This was the experience of the head of a grocery store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who was so frustrated at the process of item checkout in 1948. This pushed him to visit Drexel University to ask the institution’s engineers if they could come up with a solution for better ways to read product data, and we are all very glad he did. Thankfully, Norman Joseph Woodland and Bernard Silver were up to the challenge, and this began the motion of developing the now universally accepted barcode identifier inspired by Morse code.


Simply looking at Morse code and a barcode may not be enough to persuade you that one was inspired by the former, but Woodlen was quoted stating, “I just extended the dots and dashes downwards and made narrow lines and wide lines out of them,” when speaking of how he came up with the linear barcode from morse code in the Wonders of Modern Technology article. Bernard Silver is credited with the original coding, which was in the shape of a bullseye. The bullseye-shaped barcode can hold more information because it can store the data in both vertical and horizontal dimensions, which means more information is stored in the same amount of space. Ultimately, the linear barcode was favored more since it was easier to print and read through the bullseye barcode can still be found being used today.

How is a Barcode Read

To read a barcode, you will need a scanner. The scanner shines a laser on the barcode, which reflects off a mirror, and begins to analyze the barcode from left to right. It is then able to measure the light that is reflected back. Since the black segments absorb more light than their surroundings, it creates a contrast for the scanner to pick up. The scanner then uses photosensors to convert that pattern into electrical signals, which are then converted into a digital code that is tied to a database of stored data.

You can find them everywhere. Besides items in stores, barcodes can be found in many other places. You probably have seen more barcodes being used in restaurants since Covid 19 to help reduce high-touch areas from infecting others. If you’re a traveler, you are familiar with seeing them attached to your luggage when you check them in. You can also find them on the wrist of hospital patients. The hospital barcodes hold the healthcare information of the individual, which has very sensitive information, including name, age, medical identification number, and more.

Scanning a barcode

Depending on the barcode and what they are used for, there are different guidelines for them to follow. For example, barcodes under the category of UPC-A, standing for Universal Product Code, use a twelve-digit number to be identified, scanned, and analyzed. There are also Codabar barcodes which you can see being used by door-to-door services, membership cards, and blood banks. GS1-128 barcodes are used for package numbers, weight and cubic capacity, lot and location numbers, account codes, and more.  Since barcodes hold many sensitive data, shouldn’t they be treated as any other Personal Identifiable Information?

Redactions and Barcodes

When people think about identifiable information in videos and images, they may think of faces, cars, and tattoos. On paper, people can think of a laundry list of things that fall under Personal Identifiable Information (PII), like addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, and more; they all need to be redacted, or removed, to keep your identity safe. Unfortunately, barcodes are not among the first things people think to redact when trying to maintain privacy and follow proper guidelines. We now know the type and amount of information that can be revealed by scanning a barcode; shouldn’t that warrant barcodes be a priority when redacting?

Unfortunately, many redaction software does not have an automatic tool that allows you to redact barcodes quickly. Even trying to redact a barcode on documents by categorizing it as an image can fail.

CaseGuard understood the importance of privacy and was able to add the ability to automatically detect and redact barcodes not only in documents but also in videos and images; now, you can automatically redact barcodes from thousands of documents using bulk operations.

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