Worldcoin | What is Sam Altman’s biometric project, and how does it work in India?

What is the Worldcoin project? How is ChatGPT-maker OpenAI related to this crypto project? Why has Worldcoin been criticised? And how popular is Worldcoin in India?

July 29, 2023 11:54 am | Updated 03:46 pm IST

File photo of a person’s iris being scanned in Bangalore, India

File photo of a person’s iris being scanned in Bangalore, India | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: On July 24, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman took to Twitter to formally re-introduce Worldcoin, a project of his that was eclipsed by the popularity of ChatGPT. The Worldcoin venture runs on a simple model: allow your eyes to be scanned in order to prove your human uniqueness, and receive some crypto and an ID (called a World ID) in exchange. Worldcoin claims it is building the “world’s largest identity and financial public network” open to people worldwide.

What is Worldcoin?

Worldcoin is an initiative to create a digital network in which everyone can claim some kind of stake, and join the digital economy. Using a device called “Orb,” Worldcoin volunteers known as ‘Orb operators’ scan a person’s iris pattern to collect their biometric data and help them get a World ID through the World app. With the app, scanned participants can collect a cryptocurrency called Worldcoin [WLD] at regular intervals or make transactions with their World ID where possible. This process is called “proof of personhood” and makes sure that people do not sign themselves up multiple times in exchange for crypto.

Altman previously introduced the beta version of Worldcoin in October 2021, but the project met with criticism and concerns, while there was little to no information about the WLD crypto. In December 2022, Altman launched OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT. This project captured global attention and Altman has since become a person of note in the booming artificial intelligence industry.

After meeting with world leaders and policy makers to discuss AI regulation and innovation, Altman re-introduced Worldcoin this month. The company was co-founded by Altman while Alex Blania is the CEO of Tools for Humanity, which is Worldcoin’s founding entity.

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How does Worldcoin work?

To make the Worldcoin network possible, users need to be willing to scan irises and/or get their own irises scanned. Volunteers sign up to be “Orb operators” in their locality and receive basic training and a biometric device with which to scan irises.

Orb operators can even rent out the Orb to others to let them scan eyeballs as well. Those who have their irises scanned and collect a World ID can use this to claim the WLD crypto, which they may use for transactions (if possible and legal) or hold on to the asset in the hope that its price might rise, as it did after launching. However, users can also buy or sell WLD without getting scanned or using the app. In this sense, it resembles a standard digital currency.

In return for signing up more people to the Worldcoin network, Orb operators get WLD, which is a token based on the Ethereum blockchain. Ethereum has a native coin, Ether, which is the second-largest crypto by market capitalisation. However, anyone can create a token which runs on the Ethereum blockchain. WLD is one such cryptocurrency.

WLD was previously restricted in the U.S. The region has strict rules governing the classification of digital currencies as either securities or commodities. Crypto companies distributing digital currencies may be accused of selling “unregistered securities” in the words of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (U.S. SEC), and are likely to be taken to court.

Why does Worldcoin scan irises?

In a company blog post, Worldcoin explained that it wanted to include everyone in its network and that using biometric information to avoid duplication was a valid method for this. The company claimed that India had “proven the effectiveness of biometrics” through its Aadhaar system. Worldcoin notes that Aadhaar IDs stopped people from signing up multiple times to benefit from social welfare schemes.

Worldcoin claimed that its first sign-up was in May 2021 and that it has reached two million users as of July 13. People in Tokyo waited in lines for their turn to be scanned, while mall-goers in Bangalore were also encouraged to take part, according to a report by Reuters.

Screenshot of iris scan statistics from Worldcoin’s website

Screenshot of iris scan statistics from Worldcoin’s website | Photo Credit: Worldcoin

The company said on its official Twitter account that it uses a technology known as zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs) to maintain users’ privacy. Worldcoin has also said it is fully compliant with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The company stressed that user data was encrypted and would not be sold, though it might be shared with third parties such as vendors, service-providers like banks, or even the police and government when necessary.

“Individuals who want to receive a World ID are not required to share their name, phone number, email address, or home address. Images collected by the Orb are used to generate a unique iris code. By default these images are immediately deleted once the iris code is created, unless the user opts in to Data Custody,” said Worldcoin on its website.

Is collecting WLD a good idea?

As is the case with crypto, WLD’s price is prone to fluctuation. Launched on July 24, WLD’s price reached highs of around $3.30 before dropping down to about $2.30 on July 26. Major exchanges such as Binance and KuCoin were also supporting trades involving WLD, according to CoinMarketCap.

Screenshot of the Worldcoin cryptocurrency’s price trajectory on CoinMarketCap

Screenshot of the Worldcoin cryptocurrency’s price trajectory on CoinMarketCap | Photo Credit: CoinMarketCap

People trying to make profits from buying and selling cryptocurrencies in general may also be familiar with the risks of investing in unknown currencies. The chances of being scammed or even hacked are high if a user is not able to spot a malicious project’s red flags or secure their own digital wallets.

Was Worldcoin criticised?

Worldcoin was criticised long before its re-launch. Most notably, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden spoke against the company’s privacy model almost two years earlier. Snowden pointed out that even if a person’s biometric scans were deleted for privacy reasons — as Worldcoin said it would do — the unique identifier for the scan would match future scans of the same person’s eyes.

“Don’t use biometrics for anti-fraud. In fact, don’t use biometrics for anything,” he tweeted on October 24, 2021.

Screenshot of Edward Snowden’s tweet responding to Worldcoin in 2021

Screenshot of Edward Snowden’s tweet responding to Worldcoin in 2021 | Photo Credit: @Snowden on Twitter

Worldcoin also scanned the eyes of underprivileged people in emerging economies across South America, Asia, and Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the MIT Technology Review in 2022. The report observed that several people whose irises were scanned did not understand the project’s aims, or were tempted by Orb operators who promised rewards such as cash and Airpods in exchange for scans.

Back in 2021, Altman defended the concept of Worldcoin but admitted that he did not predict the “visceral reaction to using biometrics” for verifying people’s identities.

More recently, however, he tweeted at his critics cheerfully, saying, “[...] we especially love our haters, it gives us energy, please keep it coming!”

Has Worldcoin come to India?

According to the company website, it certainly has.

Worldcoin lists 18 locations — largely in Delhi, Noida, and Bangalore — where Orb operators are scanning people’s eyes. Some locations include popular malls and metro stations in these cities.

In its FAQ web page, Worldcoin has distanced itself from its Orb operators, stating that operators receive basic training and are “expected to follow a strict Code of Conduct that emphasizes complying with laws and protecting the public”, but they are not Worldcoin employees.

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