“When you’re a mileeurist, everything suits you”: the dangers of cryptocurrency which requires a photo of the iris | Technology

An employee of the La Vaguada shopping center (Madrid) did not understand: “Until Sunday there was no one and today, look.” It showed a line of about 20 people waiting for an Orb, a metal sphere the size of an indoor soccer ball, to photograph their irises. This photo provides access to the digital currency Worldcoin, co-founded by ChatGPT creator Sam Altman. Since last Thursday, the value of the currency has tripled, to more than 6 euros. In exchange for the photo of the iris, the application releases 13 digital currencies Worldcoin, which this week is equivalent to around 80 euros.

“When you’re a mileurist, everything suits you,” says Jorge’s partner, who came to La Vaguada to register, in reference to this money. Other users of world coin They are reluctant to give their name to a journalist, to talk about their decision after taking a photo of their iris: “I’m an ordinary citizen, Google already has all my data, I don’t think the eye contributes much” , he says. the man himself, Jorge.

The explosion in Spain is real. Since Sunday, the searches have caused queues in many of the 30 Spanish shopping centers where the irises are photographed. Now photography is only taken by appointment and reservations for some scanning positions were almost sold out. Experts, however, warn of the danger for users’ privacy.

The Worldcoin application was this Tuesday the most downloaded in Spain for iPhone (ahead of those of the social network Threads, the Temu online store and the program Operation Triumph), which is the most popular phone among young people and the fourth for Android phones. Worldwide, there are 3.5 million people registered with Worldcoin, of which more than 10% are Spanish: there are more than 360,000 holders in Spain, according to company data. “Spain is truly a country of pioneers, this has already happened with WhatsApp,” says Trevor Traina, head of global affairs at Worldcoin, via video conference from San Francisco to EL PAÍS. Registrations are currently available in 35 countries.

The majority of people queuing this Tuesday in Madrid are young people in their twenties. There is also a Glovo delivery man, several women, a grandmother with her grandson. Most found out about it from a friend or family member, thanks to news of the growth of digital currency. Others because they were attentive to the movement of new cryptocurrencies. Manuel, 71, explains that he has already invested in bitcoin and had time to register on Worldcoin: “I don’t know if I’m going to do it, is the thing with the eyes is dangerous?” he asks.

Four complaints to the AEPD

Few people worry about the intrusion into their privacy of letting a company store their irises without knowing what happens next. The Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) has already received four complaints regarding Worldcoin, which it is currently analyzing. They have not yet decided whether or not to continue the investigation. “Every large company has multiple ongoing investigations,” says Trevor Traina, citing Meta as an example. “Our system is probably the most sophisticated in the world and that’s why regulators need time to assimilate it, so they are just doing their job,” he adds. If Worldcoin manages to grow well before an AEPD decision, its application will be more complex.

Why did it explode now? At Worldcoin, they defend the theory that it is because of Sora, the text video generator announced last Thursday by OpenAI: “We all collectively experienced a seismic event. It was the first time the average person saw something and said, “My God, any video, any image can be created from nothing.” Who will we trust now? » Traina said, referring to Sora.

The Worldcoin application, called World App, has another function in addition to cryptocurrency: a World ID. The iris photo is “proof of humanity,” according to the company. If, thanks to artificial intelligence, robots can be more human-like, World ID would certify the humanity of a network user, video game player or buyer. Worldcoin already has agreements with news aggregator Reddit or commerce platform Shopify to deploy services based on World ID.

But in the shopping center lines, no one cared to demonstrate their humanity. Money is more important. “They are handing out money,” says a young man of Latin American origin waiting in line at a crypto ATM on Francisco Silvela Street in Madrid. “There are people who bring up to 1,000 euros to give change,” says an employee of the distributor. Worldcoin, available since summer 2023, gives more coins if you invite new users and log in periodically. Some have accumulated several hundred euros which they are now eager to exchange to take advantage of the increase. The cryptocurrency market has also seen a global rise in recent days.

This free money is no different than what other cryptocurrencies have used to gain new users. “No financial system can inject new money indefinitely,” says Felix Hoops, a researcher at the Technical University of Munich (Germany). “I guess they’re handing out free money for a while to get people to use their system. Each blockchain There is already a challenge to overcome,” he adds.

Worldcoin uses the trust generated by Sam Altman and his talk that when machines take over, a universal basic income will be necessary. Altman has a side project called OpenResearch that studies options for creating a basic income. “It is not a basic income, which would be a constant and regular payment to all participants,” specifies Nick Almond, founder of Factory Labs and specialist in cryptoeconomics. “What Worldcoin does is a airdrop, a one-time payment for registration. They’ve said some pretty vague things about how AI is going to generate huge profits, which they’re then going to distribute to people with a global ID, but that has no real impact on the economy. ‘OpenAI. Money comes from its currency, the price of which can vary considerably,” adds Almond.

What happens to the iris

The big fear linked to Worldcoin is, however, the photo of the iris. Comparisons with chapters of the dystopian series Black mirror They are constant. Edward Snowden requested in 2021 that “students not be classified”. The Worldcoin team defends that it does nothing more serious than other big companies. His speech tends to defend that if we have already lost privacy in pieces at the hands of several companies, it is not a question of losing a little more. Now it’s the eyes, more precisely. It’s like destroying human privacy until there’s almost nothing left.

When photographing the iris, Worldcoin gives the option to create a unique code with this information and destroy the image or allow them to keep the photo itself. But no one really knows what’s going on on the servers: “Apple, Samsung, Google and so many companies in my daily life know a lot about me,” says Worldcoin’s Trevor Haina. “Biometric and personal data and who knows where all this information is. When you enter the metro, when you go through an airport, you give up a lot. I find it ironic that a group of German scientists who have spent years (working on global identification) and hundreds of millions of dollars protecting you compare them to the subway,” adds Haina. In the conversation with EL PAÍS, Haina repeatedly mentions the “German scientists” who developed the World ID protocol, as if they were further proof of rigor, but the company did not share more concrete details.

Worldcoin also states that it does not link private personal information to the iris code. Even if the user prefers World ID to keep the original iris photo (and not the generated code). However, this is where the complexity begins to grow as to what type of data could be linked. Matthew Greene, privacy expert conducted an in-depth analysis of Worldcoin details. He saw fewer obvious dangers than he expected, but he still disagreed: the company “could link the iris code to other types of private personal information that “she might have collected things like phone numbers or emails,” says Greene.

The intended uses of the iris harvest may be commercial, for example: “The data collected by Worldcoin is used to train very powerful biometric algorithms and we don’t know what it can be used for,” says Almond. The uses of these algorithms in the years to come are now unsuspected, for this specialist in cryptoeconomics: “If we are cynical, we could see all this as a trick to use crypto incentives to train their algorithms, which they will then sell at the highest level. tenderer. I fear they will sell the algorithms or hardware (the Orb ball) to private or state actors who will use them without the privacy features. If this happens, we will succeed in making highly effective monitoring tools popular.

These are some of the expected dangers. There are also those that are unexpected or that Worldcoin does not foresee at the moment: from loss or theft to counterfeiting, including business decisions that are now unimaginable. Experts repeat that the best way to control privacy is to stop collecting data, especially if it is biometric.

There are other problems that add to this whole process. If World ID is to demonstrate humanity, will all humans have to approach the Orb balls to take a photo? It is impossible to do this on a large scale. “The biggest problem is that the gateway to the system is this Orb, of which there are only a handful,” Hoops explains.

Given the comparisons to the TV series Black mirror, Above all, the company sees opportunities: “Maybe in the future we will look back and say that this was the time. This is the moment we all opened our eyes. It’s easy to imagine that you’ll want to validate that any video or photo is authentic because, in the future, who will know if it was real? “It’s crazy, if you think about it now,” Traina adds.

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