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I had my irises scanned by Sam Altman’s Worldcoin Orbs so you don’t have to — here’s what happened

I had my irises scanned by Sam Altman’s Worldcoin Orbs so you don’t have to — here’s what happened
Using a Worldcoin Orb to have your iris scanned is an underwhelming experience, Callan Quinn finds.
  • Worldcoin catches flak for its controversial eye-scanning Orbs, which are designed to prove people are real humans.
  • Despite privacy concerns, Sam Altman of OpenAI rolled out Worldcoin this week.
  • Our reporter Callan Quinn found out what the experience was really like.

Having your eyeballs scanned is a thoroughly underwhelming experience.

Staring into the black void of the Worldcoin Orb, it doesn’t stare back at you. It doesn’t acknowledge you in any way. I’m not even sure if it worked.

An optician appointment is far more dramatic.

Nevertheless, the Worldcoin app assures me I am now a unique human. It’s a sort of validation that I don’t think I’ve ever needed.

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‘Proof of personhood’

Worldcoin rolled out in a bunch of countries around the world this week. Co-founded by Sam Altman of OpenAI fame and backed by a16z, it is perhaps crypto’s most controversial project right now.

Worldcoin’s goal, according to its white paper, is to create “a globally-inclusive identity and financial network, owned by the majority of humanity.”

Central to this idea is “proof of personhood.” The project wants to build a framework to enable people to prove they are real persons without them having to reveal their real world identities — you don’t have to give any personal information signing up except for an email.

Instead, Worldcoin scans your eyes, the supposedly most unique thing about you, and uses that to establish that you are a distinct individual.

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According to Worldcoin itself, the iris has “strong fraud resistance and data richness, meaning it can be used to accurately differentiate between billions of unique humans.”

But people are generally very uneasy about Worldcoin. Crypto sleuth ZachXBT devoted an entire Twitter thread warning against it, highlighting exploitation of people in developing countries and a growing black market for accounts.

Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin wrote an essay slamming perceived risks, including “unavoidable privacy leaks, further erosion of people’s ability to navigate the internet anonymously, coercion by authoritarian governments, and the potential impossibility of being secure at the same time as being decentralised.”

Biometrics is nothing new

Biometrics scanning is nothing new. It’s used to unlock phones and other devices, at airports and border controls, and for online banking.

A decade and a half ago kids at my secondary school paid for their lunches using their thumb prints. Amazon’s palm print checkout system in its Whole Food stores basically does the same thing.

“[People] have widely accepted the technology due to the sheer amount of time saved by not having to manually enter a passcode every time they wish to open their phone,” Daniel Fogg, CEO of DeFi company IOV Labs, told DL News.

Yet Worldcoin has got people’s backs up within the ostensibly privacy-loving crypto community and beyond.

Globally, more than two million people have signed up for Worldcoin so far.

In the rising crypto hub of Hong Kong, hundreds of people’s peepers have already been scanned across the three branches offering the service.

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But, as with many crypto projects, the people I spoke to who’d taken part in the iris scanning weren’t really interested in the utopian — or dystopian — ideals preoccupying Worldcoin’s critics.

It was all about the tokens.

Unique people

When I arrived at the makeshift Worldcoin store near Jordan station on Tuesday afternoon, there were about a dozen people — far from the block-encompassing queues of people waiting to get verified that Altman has shared videos of.

Staff — who wore identical white T-shirts embossed with the words “unique person” — told me they’d scanned about a hundred people so far that day, and another hundred on Monday despite only opening at 4pm.

They expected another hundred that evening.

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A few things stood out. Firstly, the store demonstrated a lack of marketing materials and effort to usher people inside.

I’d expected promoters to woo unsuspecting passersby from the street, but there were none.

Maybe it’s too complicated to explain. Maybe marketing it would be too controversial. Maybe it was just too hot outside.

There wasn’t really much talk about what Worldcoin was for. Worldcoin itself believes that its World ID could one day be linked to providing universal basic income and extending economic services to those who can’t access them.

Supposedly, in a world encroached upon by bots and AI, having World IDs to demonstrate your humanity may prove paramount.

When I asked about the uses in the store, I was told about the tokens.

Worldcoin’s token, WLD, is given out to verified app users on a weekly basis with a cap of 10 billion tokens in total. In the days following the rollout, it has slumped from a high of $3.15 to a current value of $2.23.

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Upon completing the process, a staff member assured me my tokens would unlock soon and hurried off to help a Mandarin-speaking older couple that had stumbled in.

They seemed confused by what was happening but persevered nonetheless. Some other people took selfies with a spare Orb.

Privacy

Worldcoin makes people uncomfortable on two fronts: the privacy implications of a crypto company collecting important biometric information, and the arrogance of a company telling people they need “proof of personhood” — especially when said company is co-run by the creator of ChatGPT.

‘Digital ID systems increase state and corporate control over individuals’ lives and rarely live up to the extraordinary benefits technocrats tend to attribute to them.’

—  Madeleine Stone

The creation of a digital currency linked to digital ID and biometric data poses unnecessary risks to privacy and security, with limited benefits to anyone outside of a Silicon Valley boardroom, according to Madeleine Stone, a senior advocacy officer at UK privacy watchdog Big Brother Watch.

“The possibility of personal data being hacked or exploited is ripe, and unlike a password or ID card, an iris can’t be reset or reissued,” she told DL News.

“Digital ID systems increase state and corporate control over individuals’ lives and rarely live up to the extraordinary benefits technocrats tend to attribute to them.”

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For its part, Worldcoin said on its app that the biometric data never leaves the Orb.

It’s processed locally and then permanently deleted, with only your IrisCode — a set of numbers generated by the Orb and linked to your wallet — remaining.

“As a result, it really tells us — and everyone else — nothing about you. All it does is stop you from being able to sign up again,” Worldcoin said.

It’s marketing doesn’t help.

Talk about “unique people” and “proof of personhood” make the company sound dystopian to some. It might not be all that different from systems that already exist, but somehow the phrasing makes it seem worse to critics.

To me, the truth is that having to prove you are a person feels very dehumanising.

With all these concerns, I left the store hoping I had not just done something that would come back to haunt me.

Do you have a tip about another story? Don’t hesitate to reach out to me at callan@dlnews.com