Over the summer, the world learned that tech investor Sam Altman was plotting to co-found a new startup that struck many as dystopian, albeit light on details: a cryptocurrency called Worldcoin that is distributed by scanning people's eyeballs with an inscrutable silver orb.
On Thursday, Altman fully revealed Worldcoin and the mysterious orb to the world with a new website and callout for staffing opportunities. The project's website lays out the vision for Worldcoin, and it seems rather immense, including a plan to mass produce tens of thousands of Orbs operated by eye-scanning entrepreneurs and "billions" of users.
“It solves the problem through biometrics: the Orb captures an image of a person’s eyes, which is converted into a short numeric code, making it possible to check whether the person has signed up already. If not, they receive their free share of Worldcoin,” the website reads. “The original image will not need to be stored or uploaded. In contrast to many centralized services we use today, no other personal information is required. Through modern cryptography, this numeric code is also not linked to the user’s wallet or transactions, further preserving user privacy.”
When the idea was first floated this summer, privacy experts and cryptocurrency advocates voiced numerous warnings about the scheme. Experts raised concerns over the possibility of things like biometric data being hacked or stolen, and one privacy attorney went so far as to tell Recode that “this company and this currency should simply not exist.”
In a Privacy by Design section of its website, Worldcoin takes pains to distinguish itself from tech companies that collect personal data to grow advertising revenue and generate profit for investors. Instead, Worldcoin maintains that it will simply "determine whether you are real and unique without requiring you to provide personal information like your name, email address, physical address or phone number." It's worth noting that the data Worldcoin collects is even more personal than the examples it gives and cannot be replaced if compromised, unlike a phone number.
A three-step process is laid out on the site. First, the Orb scans your eyes. Worldcoin claims it "immediately" uses an irreversible function to turn the image into a unique ID—a mathematical process that cannot be reversed, like mixing twelve different paint colors and asking someone to determine what the original twelve were—and deletes the biometric data. That identifier is used to ensure you haven't already claimed your Worldcoin. If you haven't, the third step creates a certificate that can only create one wallet and that Worldcoin claims offers no information about the owner. Only time will tell if this process actually exists and works.
The company is now reported by CoinDesk to be worth $1 billion. That’s thanks to $25 million in funding from Silicon Valley investors like a16z, Coinbase Ventures, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and crypto-billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried.
Worldcoin co-founder Alex Blaina told CoinDesk that each person who gives up their biometric data will be rewarded anywhere from $10 to $200, depending on how early on they communed with the Orb. In other words, there's a financial incentive to have your irises scanned now. That incentive, however, may be even smaller than you think: the payment will be distributed over two years, but ten percent will be available upfront. Notably, the website states that not everyone has to use the orb to participate; only those who want or need to get Worldcoin for free are required to do so. (Blaina also told Coindesk that rapper Azealia Banks has never been associated with the project, despite making several social media posts in 2019 about Worldcoin and name-checking Altman.)
The project's website explains that it wants Orbs to run by "entrepreneurial individuals," essentially franchisees, who will set many of the terms of how they operate. In one highlighted example, an Orb Operator in Chile has individually signed up 18,000 people in six months. Worldcoin says he has hired twenty people who work in shifts so that the Orb can be fed for eight hours a day, every day. He also flies his team out to "smaller, more remote Chilean towns."
Projection models looked at by Coindesk suggest the company believes one billion people will peer into its Orb by 2023, but there are no details offered as to how or why that would be the case. Right now, the company is seeking to onboard new Orb operators with a sign-up section on its website. The idea is that in remote villages, subway stations, college campuses, and any other space they are able to across the globe, these individuals will make you a deal you can’t refuse: your irreplaceable biometric data for a cryptocurrency of unknown value.
“In these field tests, people are waiting hours to receive their free share of Worldcoin and entrepreneurs are building whole businesses around the Orb,” WorldCoin’s site reads. “Currently, a single device can onboard, on average, around seven hundred new people per week. At full capacity, we plan to produce more than fifty thousand devices per year.”
The Worldcoin scheme, involving iris scanning for people who need free money, has echoes of a long line of tech projects with colonialist overtones. One notable example is Google's own exploitative project to train its facial surveillance technology on “dark-skinned” homeless people. There are, however, cryptocurrency projects that come to mind as well. The World Food Programme's 2017 Building Blocks initiative mixed blockchains with collecting biometric data to verify identity at refugee camps in Jordan. Groceries, for example, were paid with an eye scan, creating a comprehensive surveillance database.
All this, of course, from Google’s project to the endeavors of Bitcoin evangelists, are justified with the same rhetoric: a sort of fanatic belief that technology will help us by helping the economy. “Technological progress will lead to unprecedented economic growth,” the Worldcoin site states. “It will be increasingly important to make this prosperity accessible to all of us. The launch of Worldcoin is only the first step on the long road towards this goal, and we hope to have more to announce soon.