14 August 2023
Weeks after its international launch, Worldcoin is drawing the attention of officials around the world. Kenya's government has gone so far as to shut down the service.
The international ID company, backed by big investors in Silicon Valley's technology industry, now has to defend itself in investigations. The central question is whether the biometric data that the company is collecting is secure or not.
What is Worldcoin?
Worldcoin is the creation of Sam Altman. He is best known as the head of OpenAI, the maker of the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT.
The goal of Worldcoin and the company backing it, Tools for Humanity, is to give people a form of identification that could never be stolen or copied. Worldcoin creates a "World ID", an identification tool, by scanning someone's eyes through "orbs." These are special devices that capture images of the irises, the colored parts of the eyes.
One possible use for such an ID tool would be online services. Such services require that people remember passwords and usernames for websites they have signed up for.
The security of those sites can have problems, however. There have been several security issues where usernames and passwords have been stolen. Instead of using old technology like passwords, people could just sign up using their World ID.
What is its connection to crypto?
Worldcoin is an identification project. But it is also using cryptocurrency to get people to sign up. The Worldcoin token is trading for roughly $1.90. However, its value is largely based on expectations rather than its usability as a form of money.
Worldcoin launched officially in July. As part of the event, early users were given an amount of cryptocurrency worth between $50 and $60. Most of the countries where Worldcoin launched do not widely use or accept crypto.
Further, $50 is a lot of money in developing countries where people are being asked to sign up, including Kenya, where the average monthly wage is around $170.
Why is Worldcoin getting attention?
Thousands of Kenyans lined up in Nairobi in early August at a center where Worldcoin took images of their irises in exchange for 25 coins worth about $50.
The lines included mothers with children on their backs. Some of those in line told local media that they had traveled from a distance after friends said "free money" was being handed out. They admitted not knowing why they needed to scan their irises and where that information would go.
Others who waited for hours included college-educated Kenyans. Many are unemployed and angry over the rising cost of living.
The Kenyan government has since suspended new sign-ups for Worldcoin as it investigates whether people's information is being properly protected.
What are the privacy concerns?
Worldcoin's orbs collect data by taking images of a person's iris. While Worldcoin argues that the data is used to create a special, secure form of identification, privacy experts have concerns that the company may use the information in other ways, like personalized marketing.
That has led some countries to investigate Worldcoin's operations, including France, Germany and now Kenya.
Privacy experts are worried that Worldcoin could, in time, be a victim to criminals, similar to data thefts at other large companies. Privacy experts have said biometric data is already being sold in places like China and that could spread to other places.
Last week, Worldcoin discussed the privacy concerns on its website. The company wrote everything is available as a choice and no personal data "is disclosed by default, enabling each holder to decide which (if any) personal data to share with third parties when using World ID."
I'm John Russell.
Ken Sweet and Evelyne Musambi reported on this story for the Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
biometric -- adj. relating to the statistical study of biological data
scan -- v. to use a special machine to read or copy something into a computer
cryptocurrency – n. a digital currency where records are kept in a decentralized system
token – n. something that is used in place of a coin
disclose – v. to make (something) known to the public
by default – phrase used to describe something that happens or is done when nothing else has been done or can be done