Worldcoin, the billion-dollar startup co-founded by the CEO of ChatGPT parent OpenAI, pitched itself as a way to solve the problem of fake online identities without compromising people’s sensitive data. The company’s seemingly noble goal has already received heavy criticism from Edward Snowden and other privacy advocates — but Worldcoin seems determined to carry on with its vision despite the backlash.
“As we venture into the exciting new Age of Artificial Intelligence, solving proof of personhood is more important than ever—specifically to ensure democratic access and governance of these systems, fairly distribute the benefits generated and know who and what to trust online,” the company’s announcement reads.
Moving forward with its vision of Proof-of-Personhood — a combination of identity protocol, machine learning, hardware iris scanners, and crypto incentives — Worldcoin today unveiled its decentralized identity protocol World ID and the software developer kit that would allow builders to leverage this brand-new tool, which is as innovative as it’s controversial.
The newly launched World ID protocol is a mobile tool that is said to support multiple types of personhood verifications. At launch, its sign-up process will include phone number verification and biometric eyeball scans that are meant to ensure that every user can register only once.
To capture high-definition iris scans, Worldcoin developed a dedicated hardware called “The Orb” that is distributed through the network of operators in countries such as Argentina, Chile, India, Kenya, Portugal, and Spain. The local contractors try to persuade people to have their iris scanned by staring into the melon-sized silver orb with eyes wide open for about 10 seconds — and earn a commission for every new user.
Once the scan is complete, it’s converted to a hash, so no original iris images are stored or uploaded to the database. According to today’s announcement, World ID currently has 1.3 million sign-ins — and the project will reward biometric data providers with its WDC token.
Powered by zero-knowledge cryptography, World ID is touted by its creators as the “privacy-first protocol” meant to ensure that all personal data remains confidential. Still, not everyone is buying into this narrative — and Edward Snowden, the former NSA and CIA whistleblower who defected to Russia, warned about using parts of human bodies for identity checks back in October 2021, shortly after the project was announced.
“This looks like it produces a global (hash) database of people's iris scans (for "fairness"), and waves away the implications by saying ‘we deleted the scans!’ Yeah, but you save the *hashes* produced by the scans. Hashes that match *future* scans,” Snowden tweeted.
“‘We use ZK-proofs!’ Great, clever. Still bad. The human body is not a ticket-punch,” he added.
Another fact about Woldcoin that immediately drew suspicion from the community was that 20% of all Worldcoin supply would be allocated to the development team. Known as “premine” in crypto speak, this is an instant red flag for every crypto project, but especially for Worldcoin, which advertised its crypto incentives as a viable alternative to the universal basic income and humanitarian aid to developing countries.
Among the potential use cases of its technology, Worldcoin mentioned content attribution and moderation in social networks, voting in elections and online polls, anti-fraud compliance, customer incentives, and welfare distribution.
“Development of the World ID Protocol and SDK will continue with upcoming functionality such as authentication powered by on-device ZKML, alternative personhood verifications including ZK KYC, and generic identity credentials with support for selective disclosures and attestations,” the company said, promising to provide more details over the next weeks and months.