Sam Altman, chief executive of ChatGPT, scanned the irises of more than two million people with a metal sphere to prove they were human. The process is simple: you need to install the app on your mobile and get a QR code. Then let the metal sphere look at you with its own eye and generate a “personality test”. The test is then associated with a QR code and the application becomes…
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Sam Altman, chief executive of ChatGPT, scanned the irises of more than two million people with a metal sphere to prove they were human. The process is simple: you need to install the app on your mobile and get a QR code. Then let the metal sphere look at you with its own eye and generate a “personality test”. The proof is then linked to a QR code and the app becomes a passport called World ID, which is also a wallet for a cryptocurrency called Worldcoin. In Spain, there are spheres for this in 14 shopping centers. Why would anyone submit to this, that is the question.
The answer is money. Before launching on July 26, Altman subcontracted hundreds of third-party “operators” who charge fees for eye scans in the Global South. In Indonesia, they offered t-shirts, Airpods, and vouchers for 25 Worldcoins, which they valued at $55 (today they are worth half). They also set up cryptocurrency workshops in high schools to scan dozens of students, many of whom were underage. “Money” is not yet redeemable, and Worldcoin is unaware of operators being arrested or attacked for offering false incentives or for persistent technical glitches. Kenya has banned searches because its data protection, security and financial services agencies question the authenticity and legality of such activities. There is also skepticism about user consent because the data terms are not translated into the local language.
Altman assures that a passport and a wallet will be needed when the general artificial intelligence surpasses ours, and unemployed people will have to receive everyone’s income. “It’s unlikely that we will pay for this,” his European manager, Ricardo Maceira, recently explained, “but we want to be the infrastructure that allows governments and organizations to do this.” The company is called Tools for Humanity (Tools for humanity). Worldcoin operates from a registered fund in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven. This newspaper tried to collect a version of “Tools for Humanity” through various channels, but received no response.
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The philanthropic narrative is commonplace in capitalism, but for Sophie Henriksen, an anthropologist who specializes in the intersection of humanitarian action and tech giants, this latest incarnation is special. “Tech companies are the first to openly use their philanthropic projects to test new technologies, increase user share, or extract personal data to train algorithms,” he explains via email. They all compete to collect as much data as possible.” Tech companies entering developing countries with services, applications, and infrastructure deployed without their consent have their own academic genre: digital colonialism.
Biometric data is particularly sensitive because it is immutable; we cannot change the iris as we change the name or address. They offer great potential for abuse as they allow people to be remotely identified without their consent and can be associated with discriminatory parameters, as demonstrated by the Uyghur auto-identification system implemented by Huawei for the Chinese government. Worldcoin has two backgrounds: humanitarian and governmental.
The collection of biometric data has become commonplace in the context of migration, where iris scanning is a condition for receiving humanitarian assistance. In 2019, the United Nations World Food Program partnered with Palantir to streamline these operations, which today affect 160 million people in 120 countries. Worldcoin inherits his rhetoric. “In both cases, the iris scan is presented as a tool that will ensure a fair distribution of resources, whether it be cryptocurrency or aid and food,” says Henriksen. Refugees and poor communities, in which Worldcoin has collected most of the profiles, have few opportunities for consent and are vulnerable to exploitation.
Another example is Aadhaar, the Indian government’s biometric database. The Modi administration has codified the fingerprint and iris registration of 1 billion Indian citizens as the main tool for citizen participation for government pensions, scholarships or fuel and food assistance programs. Its critics condemn it as a system of mass surveillance of a totalitarian government in the process of radicalization.
There are 160 countries that systematically register biometric data, but a supranational database in the hands of a private company is much more dangerous. “We have seen the United Nations hand over its biometric registration data for Rohingya refugees to the Myanmar government without their consent. A private company that subcontracts services in other countries makes it very difficult to be liable in case of infringement,” says Henriksen. Tools for Humanity offers its technologies to any organization or government to help accelerate its expansion in Europe, Latin America and Africa. Worldcoin guarantees privacy because the user does not need to provide his name when registering, and his iris is stored as an abstract numeric code. “Even if it were true, and we have no way of knowing, the sphere could end up in the wrong hands,” says Anna Bacharelli, chief technology officer at Human Rights Watch.
There is one more problem. The consent form, which no one reads, says the orbs also capture high-resolution images of the user’s face, eyes, and body, in addition to recording vital signs such as heart rate and breathing. French and German data protection authorities see signs of a violation of the European Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and have launched a joint investigation.
Worldcoin is a decentralized and transparent open source infrastructure. At the moment it is private, centralized and opaque. He has raised $240 million from Silicon Valley’s top VCs, including Andreessen Horowitz, Tiger Global, Khosla Ventures, and Coinbase Ventures. “Strong funding for the project points to a huge business opportunity,” says Ella Jakubovska, biometrics and rights specialist at the European Digital Rights Association. There is an obvious market for identifying bots and synthetic users on digital service platforms. In this sense, Worldcoin seems to be an antidote to Altman’s other project, the generative artificial intelligence company OpenAI.
But its explicit goal is participation in democratic processes and access to social security administration, universal minimum wages and stipends around the world. Jakubowska finds this ominous. “Making a barcode for every inhabitant of the planet is not at all humane. Worldcoin is the complete opposite of the community.”
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