Eyes on Worldcoin: the project that aims to verify humanity in exchange for biometric information

8 minutes
Eyes on Worldcoin: the project that aims to verify humanity in exchange for biometric information

With technologies that can mimic a person's image and voice or create a new synthetic identity from scratch, authentication is a rising value on the Internet and an unsolved problem. Worldcoin has set out on a mission to address this challenge by creating the largest network of verified humans online. In exchange for accreditation and some cryptocurrencies, the company obtains the biometric information consigned in people's irises.

The project is developed by the company Tools for Humanity, co-founded in 2019 by Sam Altman, who, in turn, leads OpenAI. Worldcoin, which began operations in Latin America in recent weeks, is several things at the same time. In addition to delivering a digital passport -known as World ID-, the company offers its own cryptocurrency: the Worldcoin, which on its official website is presented as a token "distributed freely, equitably and globally to unique humans".

In plazas, shopping malls and stores in countries in the region, Worldcoin has orbs, futuristic metallic spheres that scan participants' irises. These devices generate an alphanumeric code from the image, which is then removed. According to the company, this method makes it possible to prove that someone is a human being without revealing private information. With this passport, users can validate that they are real on applications such as Reddit, Telegram, Discord or Shopify.

As an incentive or reward, people who obtain their World ID receive a disbursement of Worldcoin in a digital wallet. This promise of "free money" is part of the success of the initiative, which has accredited more than five and a half million people in more than 160 countries.

In countries such as Mexico, the idea of receiving a payment for scanning the iris has been especially attractive for migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, Haiti and Central America, who arrive at Worldcoin stores eager to receive a sum that can be around 45 dollars -according to the price of the cryptocurrency-, as pointed out in a Wired report.

The lack of knowledge of some people to handle these tools exposes them to others stealing the money they earned for handing over their data. According to Wired, participants in Mexico have started to lose their money before they even left the Worldcoin premises, because a person who helped them convert the money to cash took part of their cryptocurrencies.

Worldcoin has tried to promote a discourse of social justice, as if the payment in cryptocurrencies were a private and digital version of a universal basic income. Despite this concept of fairness, by April 2022, 20% of the available cryptocurrencies had already been allocated among the company's employees and investors.

Authorities alerted

Worldcoin's methods have attracted the attention of data protection authorities and led to its operations being curbed in Spain, Portugal, Kenya and Hong Kong.

Last April, Chile's National Consumer Service - SERNAC - announced visits to Worldcoin stores in that country to corroborate compliance with biometric data collection standards. Andrés Herrera, director of that entity, assured that the measure was also motivated by the protection of young people and vulnerable population, who could "agree to have their iris scanned for an economic motivation, but might not be fully aware of the implications of sharing their personal data".

The authorities of Argentina and Peru announced similar measures, as well as the opening of investigations.

In view of these alarms, the company has approached public entities to clarify the scope of its activities. In mid-May, Mauricio Lizcano, Colombia's Minister of Information Technologies and Communications, reported that he had met with company representatives to discuss the orb .

In any case, on May 31, two days after Worldcoin's arrival in Colombia, the Colombian Superintendency of Industry and Commerce indicated that it would carry out a preventive surveillance to safeguard the processing of personal data.

Although Worldcoin claims that its methodology is secure, some experts have warned about the effective protection of the data. The iris is one of the most valuable biometric data, as it allows a person to be recognized with a very high level of accuracy and is not at risk of changing over time, as could happen with other physical traits.

According to its corporate line, Worldcoin is not interested in having people's data, but in checking that they are "unique". However, some facts show that in its affiliate campaigns the company has collected much more data.

According to an MIT Technology Review investigation focused on the early Worldcoin pilots, project representatives used deceptive marketing practices, collected personal data from users and, with the distractor of incentives or rewards - from cryptocurrencies to Airpods - shirked responsibility for obtaining meaningful informed consent from their users.

Worldcoin pointed to a significant number of registrations in countries such as Indonesia, Sudan and Kenya. "The fact that there are stronger data protection laws in the global north means that entrepreneurs in that part of the world have to look to the developing world to supply the demand for the data they require," digital anthropologist Payal Arora told the media outlet.

The project enlisted 450,000 people in these parts of the world, a significant number to present itself as the best option in the human authentication market.

The weight with which Worldcoin lands in the region exposes the regulatory failures or limitations of the two areas in which it operates: data protection and cryptocurrencies. In addition, it brings to the table the difficulties and the need to design mechanisms to verify human beings at a time when AI models can be exploited to run armies of fake accounts - as you can see below in this newsletter. Faced with this reality, platforms such as X (Twitter) have turned their authentication systems into a product rather than a trusted element of the service.

This article originally appeared in Botando Corriente, our newsletter. You can subscribe here:‍
go home