Worldcoin biometric enrollment frenzy sparks raid, concerns
As questions continue to arise about Sam Altman’s Worldcoin venture, one thing is certain: we will be hearing a lot more about it. As the blockchain-based biometrics and cryptocurrency firm led by the founder of ChatGPT continues its mission to create “the world’s largest identity and financial public network,” regulators and authorities have begun to raise eyebrows over how transparent it is being with people trading their biometrics for WLD tokens.
Reuters reports that more than 2.2 million people have already signed up to have their irises scanned by Worldcoin’s spherical biometric imaging tool, the Orb. In exchange, registrants receive a digital ID and, in some cases, a financial incentive of 25 Worldcoins, worth about US$50. More than 120 million Worldcoin tokens are currently in circulation, and the company plans to release 10 billion into the market over the next decade and a half.
A great eye, lidless, seeking fame
Worldcoin has scaled its biometric data collection quickly, setting up scanning booths in 20 cities across Africa, India and East Asia. According to an article in Rest of World, the promise of easy money in exchange for a quick scan has spurred long lineups in Nairobi, Hong Kong, and Bengaluru, India.
For many who look into the Orb, the cost of living is such that they are happy to trade biometric data for what, in some currencies, is a significant sum. But some observers worry that people eager for free money do not understand the terms and conditions that come with it.
As reported in The Star Kenya, the fine print reveals some more rigid aspects of the trade-off. Details in the sign-up agreement make it difficult for users to pursue any kind of legal action against the company. In addition to the familiar language around indemnification, damages and liabilities, the agreement states that under no circumstances will Worldcoin pay out any amount exceeding US$100.
In Kenya, first a ban, then a police raid
The east African nation has been a hotbed of activity for the Worldcoin project, and a microcosm of its larger issues with privacy and legality. Thousands of Kenyans have already volunteered their iris scans for tokens, and the Worldcoin mobile app has topped the country’s download charts. On the other hand, the government has suspended the company’s activities and initiated a criminal investigation, citing potential risk to the public.
The situation escalated last week, when Kenyan police raided the Worldcoin warehouse in Nairobi. TechNext cites a local media report that described officers removing documents and data storage machines from a location on Mombasa Road.
Meanwhile, Kenya’s interior and information ministries issued a joint statement denying that the data controller registration certificate issued to Worldcoin in April is a valid license to operate in the country. The statement argued that a certificate only signifies compliance with certain sections of the Data Protection Act, and does not enable business operations.
Co-founder snaps back at criticisms
Worldcoin has done its own share of denying, in a pushback against allegations of lax security and biometric data leaks. The company has been dogged by reports that iris scans are being traded on a black market fueled by WLD.
Alex Blania, a co-founder of Worldcoin, spoke on the podcast Unchained about these issues, emphasizing the company’s commitment to privacy and security. Blania acknowledged that users in countries where Worldcoin is not active were able to buy logins, but said users could not claim WLD tokens without paying another visit to the Orb for iris verification or face biometrics matching. He acknowledged that there’s nothing to fundamentally prevent credential trading for Worldcoin or the associated digital ID, but said the incentive to do so has dropped since the currency went live, and that it was more profitable to just sign up and take the free crypto.
As to questions about whether people who step up to the Orb know what exactly what deal they are making, Blania said, “It’s unfair to hold me accountable for the fact that people don’t understand how crypto works. These people might not understand everything fully. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s how crypto actually will become mainstream. Even if you do everything perfect, the average person will not understand how crypto works.”
On Monday, Worldcoin faced another common mainstream tech problem, when its mobile app crashed after a spike in traffic, and users were met with various error messages barring access to their crypto wallets.
Since launch, a Worldcoin token has dropped 43 percent in market value, to US$2.04 as of Tuesday afternoon.