The Worldcoin Orb. Photo from the Worldcoin website

Worldcoin rewards people with tokens for having their iris scanned. The dystopian-looking project arouses suspicion among data protection advocates in many countries. A decision has been made in Kenya, and is still being examined in Korea and Bavaria.

Yes, it looks pretty scary. An “orb” is placed in city centers, people line up, put their eyes in front of a camera when it’s their turn, and then when the orb has completed the iris scan, they get some Worldcoin tokens (WLC). Crypto goes dystopian too.

Many people, especially in developing countries, are happy with this offer. Worldcoin has already scanned the irises of more than 5.8 million people. But data protection officers were suspicious from the start, and Worldcoin was stopped in many places because of this.

In South Korea, the “Commission for Personal Information Protection” launched an investigation on February 29th in response to complaints about the collection of personal data in South Korea. Noah Kim, the only Korean employee at Worldcoin, recently responded to the allegations: The Orb only verifies individuality and humanity, and all data is immediately deleted. Compared to facial recognition and fingerprints, iris scans are the cheapest and most reliable method of generating a “proof of humanity.”

In Kenya, they are already one step further. Worldcoin was banned there in August 2023 until concerns about data protection have been resolved. The investigation has now been completed; no violations of laws or data protection regulations were found. This means that Worldcoin is allowed again in Kenya.

If Worldcoin works as the concept suggests, there would actually be virtually no data protection concerns. When the user scans their iris, the Orb generates a special hash from it, which is uploaded to a blockchain. This hash cannot be used to determine the iris itself; it can only be used to determine whether this user has already been to an Orb, thus preventing someone from registering twice. Even during operation, iris data is never revealed, as zero-knowledge proofs are used. Worldcoin uses the latest cryptography to reduce the data generated to an absolute minimum.

If – if it goes as Worldcoin planned. Because the individual Orb operators could well have the opportunity to manipulate the process, for example by simply not deleting the raw data. Therefore, a lot depends on Worldcoin – or the relevant supervisory authorities – monitoring the iris scans. The Bavarian State Authority for Data Protection Supervision (BayLDA) is not yet convinced of this. Since the company behind the technology, Tools for Humanity, is based in Erlangen in Central Franconia, it is responsible. It initiated an investigation last year, but has not yet completed it.

The BayLDA recently published its annual report for 2023. In it, it writes that it is examining the company’s approach “due to the high sensitivity of the biometric data processed.” To this end, it is also carrying out “on-site checks, which are part of the standard procedure for such innovative technologies with a very large target group: On the one hand, a location in Berlin was visited where users could register, and on the other hand, a team from the BayLDA inspected the headquarters of the company primarily responsible for the development
and testing the technology.” The review is not yet complete, but results are expected in 2024.

In Spain, the authorities and courts have already made a judgment – ​​and banned Worldcoin.

Almost everywhere Worldcoin appears, a ban is threatened. Every data protection authority instinctively suspects abuse and starts an investigation, which is exhausting at best and ends in a ban at worst. But with all of this – why at all? Why is Worldcoin, a project by OpenAI founder Sam Altman, doing all this?

Worldcoin scans people’s irises to generate a “proof of humanity”, a “proof of being human”. This should then be able to be used to identify oneself on the Internet – as nothing more than a unique human being, not a bot, not a sock puppet, but a human being. This is necessary, according to the vision, in order not to completely lose one’s orientation and mind in the age of generative AI.

With the “World ID” you can already verify yourself on various systems, such as Discord, Reddit, Shopify, Telegram and others. There aren’t many yet, but it’s a start.

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