What is Worldcoin? - Identity Review | Global Tech Think Tank - Identity Review | Global Tech Think Tank

The latest brainchild of Sam Altman, the CEO of Y Combinator from 2014 to 2019, is seeking to deliver free cryptocurrency to one billion people in two years, but it comes with an added caveat: you must have your eyes scanned.

With only 3.9 percent of the world’s population in possession, Worldcoin is envisioned as a means to increase and equalize cryptocurrency ownership. In late 2019, Altman conceived the idea of using iris scanning technology as a fraud detection system to secure the coin for anyone in the world. Altman hopes a fairly distributed currency can eventually cover the daily necessities of citizens and empower them to contribute more to society. He is a part of the swelling interest in Silicon Valley to implement Universal Basic Income (UBI) policies, but the means to achieve this has raised concerns over the data privacy of the first billion users that Worldcoin hopes to connect with.

“We are obsessed with the idea that technology can let us do something collectively that even governments have not been able to: increase individual empowerment and equality of opportunity on a global scale,” said Worldcoin on their website. The company promises their new “collectively owned global currency” will bring egalitarian solutions to money: a mission that has faced a lot of criticism for posturing Worldcoin’s questionable use of biometrics.

Data for Pilot Testing

At the moment, Worldcoin is launching field tests that involve thirty Orbs in various countries. The Orbs are sphere-like cameras that store custom optical systems. It automatically finds the user’s eyes and captures high-resolution images of both irises, computing them into unique “IrisHashes” that authenticates each individual’s identity. 

According to Worldcoin, these images are to be collected en masse only during their field tests to improve their fraud-detection algorithms. The Orbs are equipped with a suite of sensors that operate locally on each device, and Worldcoin promises they only monitor its non-biometric metadata to flag anomalies in the system.

“Without it, we wouldn’t be able to fairly and inclusively give a share of Worldcoin to everyone on Earth. But we can’t wait to stop collecting it and we want to make it clear that it will never be our business to sell your personal data,” reads a WorldCoin blog post titled “Privacy During Field Testing.” It continues to posture that Worldcoin’s mission is to ensure “every person on Earth can prove that they are “indeed human without revealing anything about themselves.”  

Yet eyeball scanning, along with most facial recognition technologies, is situated in a gray area when it comes to privacy because it encroaches on the permanent nature of our physiological features.

Seeing Eye to Eye

Worldcoin has revealed that they hoped to distribute four thousand devices per month during this ramp-up phase, with each device onboarding an average of seven hundred new people per week. Despite their promise to delete these scans after the tests, many critics still question the permanence of records once new iris-scanning data is collected and compared to stored hashes.

“Don’t catalogue eyeballs, […] the human body is not a ticket-punch,” said Edward Snowden in a tweet in response to Altman’s statement. Even after field tests are over, Worldcoin will still be storing data that reveal proxy bits of collected identities.

According to the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), people should always be informed if their personal information is being collected. In the case of facial information such as irises, regulators are concerned with the ease of capturing information without the individual being aware they are being scanned. New iris-based systems can now gather images of people’s eyes from a distance of up to forty metres.

A Risky Autonomy

Currently, the field tests involve a network of “Orb Operators” who are individuals that are financially incentivized by Worldcoin to collect the biometrics of user’s eyes, bodies and faces in their local communities. Worldcoin hopes to give Orb Operators “the autonomy to build their operations from the ground up, doing everything from running their own marketing campaigns to collaborating with local partners.” But this autonomy could incentivize ill-intended actions that will not align with Worldcoin’s hopes for privacy.

“This challenge is the longstanding problem of “unique-humanness”: how can you prove you are you, without telling us anything about yourself,” said Worldcoin. Before any iris technology is deployed, regulators will look for justification that iris recognition is the least intrusive way to achieve its goal. 

To date, Worldcoin’s pilot has on-boarded twenty five Orbs that run across four continents, with the highest-performing orbs reporting one thousand users per week. 


Ivy Tsang is a Tech Innovation Fellow at Identity Review from the University of Southern California, where she explores the intersections between the Arts, Technology and Business of Innovation. 

Contact Ivy at ivy@identityreview.com

Do you have information to share with Identity Review? Email us at press@identityreview.com.

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