Is Sam Altman’s Worldcoin a Dystopian Attempt to Steal Identities?

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Worldcoin, co-founded by OpenAI's Sam Altman, aims to create a global digital identification system, using iris-scanning technology. However, the trade-off of personal biometric data for its cryptocurrency, WLD, raises critical questions about data privacy, valuation, and potential exploitation. Worldcoin's debut stirred controversy, with concerns about data misuse, economic bias, and ethical implications of centralized power. Despite alternative solutions for identity verification, Worldcoin's future hangs on its commitment to responsible data use.

Media attention peaked on 24 July, when OpenAIโ€™s CEO Sam Altman’s Worldcoin made its public debut, sparking curiosity, ambition, and a hefty dose of scepticism. The futuristic project, which revolves around iris-scanning orbs and creating a digital world with IDs created by those scans, swiftly stirred up a global conversation miles away from its launch spots in Britain, Japan, and India.

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In this article, we look at how Worldcoin works, what it’s trying to achieve, and the implications of giving up personal data for money. With growing worries about privacy and identity in our increasingly digital world, we also examine whether there are easier ways to prove who we are without giving away so much information.

What Is Worldcoin All About?

Worldcoin is a digital identification platform conceived with an ambitious objective: to establish a system where everyone on Earth can prove their humanity online. The project, led by Tools for Humanity, is co-founded by Altman.

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The technology used by Worldcoin derives from cryptographic and blockchain tools that have become mainstays in the cryptocurrency arena. An integral part of the system is its cryptocurrency, WLD, and its associated payment platform.

How Does It Work?

Worldcoin relies on three interconnected components.

The centrepiece is the World ID, which offers a unique solution to verify the “humanness” of its users. It uses an iris-scanning device called the Orb. The device scans the user’s iris, generating a unique IrisCode โ€“ much like a fingerprint โ€“ that serves as a one-time identification mark to prevent duplication of World IDs.

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Following the scan, the device issues the World ID on the Worldcoin blockchain and disposes of the iris image, ensuring user data privacy. Users then interact with the system via a secured app.

Worldcoin technology is currently operational in major cities globally, such as London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, Paris, Lisbon, Mexico City, Sรฃo Paulo, Nairobi, New York, and San Francisco, among others.

The World App

The World App offers two-fold functionality. First, it stores user credentials for third-party app verification and doubles as a cryptocurrency wallet. In addition to the World ID, users can store Bitcoin, Ethereum, and USDC in the app, with promises of support for more cryptocurrencies in the future.

With a World ID and the World App, users gain access to the WLD cryptocurrency token. The digital currency was initially issued to beta program participants, followed by a substantial airdrop to users on July 24, 2023, marking the platform’s official launch.

Worldcoin’s white paper reveals that over a period of 15 years, a total of 10 billion WLD tokens will be released. As of the launch date, 143 million WLD tokens are in circulation.

Worldcoin and Data Privacy: An Unsettling Trade-off?

Digital identity leveraged by biometric data is a complex and important issue. In the case of Worldcoin, It raises eyebrows as people seem eager to exchange biometric data for 25 WLD, worth $2.21 each as of writing. The project is essentially trading biometric data, a sensitive form of personal information, for a handful of coins.

Offering economic benefits, no matter how small, is certainly encouraging people to join the Worldcoin bandwagon, however. The potent mix of cryptocurrency’s charm and the universal digital ID’s democratization potential attracts many, especially those without access to standard banking.

However, the readiness of people to trade critical biometric data for money prompts questions about the valuation of personal data. It exposes a glaring disparity โ€“ the worth of personal biometric data versus the fleeting monetary reward offered. This discrepancy points to a lack of awareness or disregard for the potential consequences of sharing such sensitive information.

The unique and highly sensitive nature of biometric data means that a data breach could lead to irreversible damage to users. Paired with the reality that no system is entirely foolproof, this is a colossal gamble for such a minor payoff.

Worldcoin’s minimal entry barrier might have psychological implications as well. By providing an instant reward, it capitalizes on the human tendency to prioritize short-term gains over potential long-term risks. This tactic could be a gateway to larger requests in the future.

The low cost of entry also raises questions about economic bias. Are people with less financial stability more likely to exchange their data for a relatively small amount? If that’s the case, it brings about a troubling ethical issue. Are initiatives like Worldcoin unintentionally taking advantage of the economically disadvantaged?

Finally, Altman’s role adds more complexity. As the CEO of OpenAI, he has tremendous influence in the AI domain. By amassing global biometric data, he could further strengthen his power and sway.

This situation isn’t merely about individual privacy but about the societal implications of such centralized power. It underscores the ethical responsibilities of tech leaders and the urgent need for strict regulations to ensure the just and responsible use of sensitive data.

A Wave of Criticism Hits Worldcoin Post-Launch

Because of the controversial nature of the project and its use of sensitive data, shortly after the official launch of Worldcoin, a barrage of scepticism flooded in.

On 25 July, the UK’s Information Commissionerโ€™s Office (ICO), for one, voiced concerns about the processing of biometric data and potential issues concerning user consent.

An ICO representative said:

“We note the launch of WorldCoin in the UK and will be making enquiries. Organisations must conduct a Data Protection Impact Assessment before starting any processing that is likely to result in high risk.”

They further stressed that user consent must be free and capable of being withdrawn without detriment. The UK regulator’s investigation could potentially influence decisions by other global authorities.

Ethereum founder, Vitalik Buterin, wasn’t silent about his worries related to Worldcoin either. Buterin suggested in a blog post that Worldcoin’s iris scans might collect more data than initially disclosed. He also hinted at the possibility of fraudulent scanning of someone else’s iris to check if they hold a World ID.

The MIT’s Technology Review, in April 2022, also alleged that Worldcoin employed “deceptive marketing practices, collected more personal data than it acknowledged, and failed to obtain meaningful informed consent.”

In response to the MIT Technology Review, Worldcoin countered by affirming its commitment to data privacy and user uniqueness.

“Worldcoin is only interested in a userโ€™s uniqueness โ€“ i.e., that they have not signed up for Worldcoin before โ€“ not their identity,” they claimed.

Worldcoin has also faced criticism for its aggressive marketing efforts in developing regions like Asia and Africa, leading to concerns of exploitation.

Further adding to suspicions, Worldcoin also secured investment from Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of the fraudulent crypto exchange FTX, in an early funding round in October 2021.

Looking Beyond Biometrics

A complex challenge society faces in our growing digital era is the secure, efficient, and non-invasive verification of individual identities. Sam Altman’s Worldcoin project takes a biometric route, which some perceive as intrusive due to the delicate nature of the data.

Yet, it’s worth noting that there’s a wide array of alternatives, each with unique benefits and intricacies.

Decentralized ID Systems

An alternative to Worldcoin’s biometric approach lies in decentralized identity (DID) systems. DID systems give users the reins to their digital identities, eliminating the need to place trust in a centralized entity for sensitive data management.

Blockchain, despite its complexity, underpins these systems, offering security and data privacy benefits. However, an obstacle for DID systems is ensuring accessibility and ease of use for individuals with varying technology literacy.

Multi-factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) systems provide another avenue, combining various credentials for verification, such as knowledge-based (password), possession-based (a physical token or smartphone), and inherence-based (biometrics).

Implementing less intrusive types of MFA, like SMS codes or app-based confirmations, could potentially address data privacy concerns better than more intrusive biometric options, such as iris scans.

Zero-knowledge Proof

Anonymous verification methods like zero-knowledge proofs might offer a solution. This complex cryptographic technique allows one party to demonstrate knowledge of a specific piece of information to another party without revealing the information itself.

While this method can ensure identity verification without the need for sharing personal data, the challenge remains to simplify the technology and scale it user-friendly.

Federated Identity

Federated identity, which lets users employ existing credentials (from Google or Facebook, for example) to log into third-party services, reduces the need for further invasive data gathering. However, it brings into question the reliance on these tech behemoths and the potential misuse of data within their platforms.

Self-sovereign Identity

The concept of self-sovereign identity (SSI) on a blockchain could lead to a new dynamic for data privacy. Users would have a digital wallet containing verified claims. Whenever someone requests to confirm a detail, the user can choose to disclose only that specific information. This method starkly contrasts with current systems that often demand users to divulge excessive data when only a fraction of it is needed.

Undoubtedly, Altman’s new venture is ambitious and has the potential to make a significant impact on the future of digital identity. However, the ethical and practical implications of collecting and storing such sensitive data for money have left many uneasy.

Despite Worldcoin’s attempts to reassure the public about its commitment to user privacy, its rapid rollout in economically vulnerable regions and its association with the controversial founder of crypto exchange FTX have added fuel to the fire.

The final call on whether Altman’s Worldcoin is a pathbreaking innovation or a dystopian data trap will largely depend on how the project moves forward and if it can prove its commitment to the responsible and ethical use of data.

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Trent Alan

Trent has an educational background in journalism and communications, and he has spent twenty years honing his writing and editing skills on various subjects. Recently, his interests have leaned towards blockchain, DeFi, and the Web3 sector, underscoring his belief in the importance of decentralizing the financial system and the internet. He has contributed to prominent Web3 publications such as Business2Community, Cryptonews.com, InsideBitcoins, and BSC News. Additionally, Trent has collaborated with numerous fintech enterprises, assisting them in producing web content, whitepapers, and marketing resources. His primary goal is to provide clear and factual information about cryptocurrencies and Web3 technologies, propelling the…