Millions of individuals worldwide are queuing up to participate in a new online identity verification system and receive “free” cryptocurrency by staring into a silver sphere the size of a bowling ball. The silver spheres, known as “Orbs,” are part of the Worldcoin platform, which was officially launched in July 2023 after an 18-month testing phase. Led by Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, and entrepreneur Alex Blania, Worldcoin offers users a “digital passport” called World ID and small amounts of a cryptocurrency token called Worldcoin (WLD) simply for being human. The platform aims to establish “proof of personhood” to differentiate humans from artificial intelligence systems online. However, critics argue that the company is essentially bribing people to hand over highly sensitive biometric data. Several governments have taken notice, with the Worldcoin platform already suspended in Kenya and under investigation in other countries.
To participate in the Worldcoin platform, users can download the WorldApp on their mobile phones and locate their nearest Orb. The Orb uses iris scans to uniquely identify individuals. Once an individual’s iris is scanned, they receive a World ID, which serves as an online ID similar to a Google or Facebook login. World ID is designed to prove that the user is a human being and is more private since it does not link to other personal information about the user.
Despite being labeled as a “digital passport,” World ID does not aim to reveal or verify a user’s identity in the traditional sense. Its purpose is to establish that the user is a unique and real person rather than a bot. In most countries, users are also entitled to units of WLD cryptocurrency once their iris scan is complete.
The Worldcoin website currently lists 60 Orb locations worldwide, primarily in Europe, Asia, North America, and South America, with plans for Orb “pop-ups” as well. As of now, there are no Orb locations in Australia, but individuals in Australia can purchase the WLD cryptocurrency through specific exchanges and download the World App, which also functions as a cryptocurrency wallet.
Critics argue that paying individuals to scan their irises is a dystopian practice and equivalent to bribery. Offering money for sensitive data potentially turns privacy, a human right, into a luxury only accessible to the wealthy. People experiencing poverty may risk future harm to meet their immediate survival needs.
Worldcoin uses iris scans for verification because each iris is unique and difficult to fake. However, the risks of handing over such data are significant since an iris cannot be replaced if compromised. Surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden has criticized Worldcoin for “cataloguing eyeballs” and highlighted the unacceptable risks involved. Worldcoin claims that iris scans are deleted after being converted into a unique iris code, which becomes the user’s World ID. The World ID is then stored on a decentralized blockchain to prevent fakes or duplicates. However, the user must trust the company to delete or securely store the biometric data.
Regulators in several countries have taken action against Worldcoin. The Kenyan government has suspended Worldcoin’s activities due to regulatory concerns, while the German privacy watchdog and French privacy regulator are investigating the company’s practices. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office has also announced an investigation into Worldcoin, citing the high risk associated with processing special category biometric data. In Australia, the federal privacy regulator has previously found companies in breach of privacy laws for failing to obtain valid consent for the use of biometric data and collecting it when not reasonably necessary.