Details are slowly emerging about a new startup, Worldcoin, which aims to launch a new cryptocurrency that it would distribute to people in exchange for their eye scans. The futuristic-sounding idea has drawn major Silicon Valley supporters, including Y Combinator chairman Sam Altman, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Day One Ventures.
But while information is still available about Worldcoin, crypto and privacy experts are already digging holes in its main premise.
Bloomberg discovered the plans of the fledgling startup, which appear to involve the launch of a cryptocurrency that anyone could have a stake in. The idea seems to be inspired by the concept of universal basic income, or unconditional direct payments to people, usually distributed by the government. And the startup wants to deliver that currency by building orb-shaped devices that convert scans of people’s eyes to unique digital identifiers to ensure that a person is a legitimate payment recipient and not trying to s ‘register more than once. . An online job posting for Worldcoin cited by Bloomberg noted that the start-up hoped to create “a dedicated hardware device that ensures both the humanity and uniqueness of all who sign up, while maintaining their privacy. and the overall transparency of an unauthorized blockchain “.
The company is already testing a prototype of its eye analysis device in several cities (volunteers are paid mostly in bitcoin for now) and has at least $ 25 million in funding, according to Bloomberg. Company executives appear to believe its biometric data tracking device would prevent a person from signing up for multiple Worldcoin payments. All in all, the startup wants to fuel a new cryptocurrency that the whole world can access, and that could be paid out to almost anyone – although they would apparently have to agree to let Worldcoin scan their irises.
But some privacy and cryptocurrency advocates are already warning that the plan, as utopian as it sounds, has dystopian implications. They say Worldcoin’s reliance on biometric technology is unnecessary and could lead to major privacy concerns. They warn that the fledgling proposal is a solution in search of a problem, and that its plan to rely on people’s incredibly sensitive biometric data is undermining the pseudonymous spirit behind cryptocurrencies.
Biometric data is so sensitive because it uses a person’s physical characteristics like their fingerprints, iris or faces, to identify them. Proponents of biometrics say using body parts to identify people can be more secure and can prevent fraud. But critics have pointed out that biometric identification systems can have integrated biases, and also require the collection of highly sensitive information that cannot be overwritten if a malicious actor takes hold of that data. “If your social security number is leaking, you can get a new social security number. If your credit card number is leaking, you can get a new credit card number, ”Evan Greer, deputy director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, says Recode Last year. “If a biometric scan of your face is leaking, you can’t get a new face. “
Right now, we don’t have much assurance that Worldcoin will be able to protect this sensitive data, John Davisson, an attorney at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), told Recode in an email. . “This business and this currency just shouldn’t exist,” he argued, saying there are better ways to distribute a universal basic income without sacrificing privacy. Neither Day One Ventures nor Andreessen Horowitz responded to a request for comment.
“Apple put a tremendous amount of effort into adding biometric data to their devices, and their solution was simple: never send it off the phone,” Matthew Green, professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute, told Recode in an email. “But that doesn’t work with cryptocurrency.”
He points out that biometrics won’t necessarily stop fraud either. “No one has a clue of how to build an affordable iris scanner that isn’t vulnerable to some sort of identity theft,” Green told Recode. People looking to escape the system, he said, might just look for ways to simulate “new” irises.
Another criticism of Worldcoin is that it looks like it would require central control of the currency – and it would go against the principles behind blockchain-based technologies. “It is simply contrary to the values of bitcoin and this original movement to create digital currencies that can help us get out of this system of control where companies and governments suck all of our personal data,” said Alex Gladstein, the head of strategy. responsible for the Human Rights Foundation, which supported the use of bitcoin.
While Worldcoin’s eye-scanning orb certainly looks new, the concept of using biometrics to power blockchain-based payments isn’t entirely new. In 2017, the United Nations launched a blockchain-based system for tracking payments in a Jordan-based refugee camp. To confirm the identity of people when shopping, the United Nations system used eye scans.
The idea of using biometrics to deliver benefits is not new either. The Indian government, for example, has been trying for years to expand its Aadhaar system, which uses citizens’ biometric data to facilitate government financial programs. Since its inception, Aadhaar – sometimes referred to as the largest biometric identification system – has been the subject of numerous criticisms, in particular that it endangers the privacy of individuals, that it allows surveillance state, and exclude people from accessing government benefits if they are unwilling or unable to create biometric records. The system’s databases have also been breached in the past, according to reports.
Albert Fox Cahn, Executive Director of the surveillance technology surveillance project, strongly opposes the premise behind Worldcoin. “It is appalling that investors are wasting tens of millions on a new crypto system in the name of helping the world’s poor,” he said. “If they were really interested in helping low-income communities, they should donate their money instead of investing in some other form of monitoring.”
On Tuesday, Sam Altman pushed aside concerns about Worldcoin’s plans and hinted in a tweet that more information would be available soon.
on a more serious note, the worldcoin team will talk about the project when it’s ready. hope not too long.
– Sam Altman (@sama) June 30, 2021
As cryptocurrencies become more and more popular, startups and large companies have increasingly sought to cash in. But launching a cryptocurrency doesn’t always work. Facebook, for example, has encountered so many obstacles to its cryptocurrency, libra – since renamed diem – that its launch was significantly delayed.
If and when Worldcoin debuts, those who sign up for its cryptocurrency would place a bet with their own biometric data. “Worldcoin apparently wants to create a global identification system based on billions of highly sensitive biometric identifiers,” EPIC’s Davisson warned, “all in exchange for a currency that could prove to be worthless.”