ICO keeping an eye on new iris-scanning cryptocurrency and digital ID

Worldcoin, led by OpenAI founder, is intended to allow humans to benefit from economic growth in a world increasingly powered by automated technology, but many critics label scheme as dystopian

The Information Commissioner’s Office has indicated it will be looking into possible issues created by the UK launch of iris-scanning cryptocurrency project Worldcoin.

The regulator has also reminded organisations of their obligations to comply with data-protection law, especially in cases where sensitive biometric data is involved.

Launched publicly last week, Worldcoin is the brainchild of Sam Altman, the founder of OpenAI – the tech firm behind ChatGPT.

The three cornerstones of the project include a digital identity, World ID, and the token-based Worldcoin cryptocurrency. These are brought together via an the World app, which “enables payment, purchases and transfers globally using digital assets and traditional currencies”, according to the project’s website.

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To obtain an ID – and receive a free issuance of 25 tokens, which are currently cumulatively worth about £45 – people can visit an ‘orb’, a device (pictured above) about the size and shape of a football that can be used to scan people’s irises. This process, which has already been completed by about two million people in 34 countries around the world, is intended as a means of proving that the user is human.

The first orb in the UK began operating in London last week and Worldcoin’s website invites enquiries from anyone interested in becoming an operator – which it says offers opportunities to “earn money for everyone you sign up with an orb”.

The ICO issued a statement reminding organisations that biometric data – which includes iris-scanning – constitutes the most sensitive personal information, as defined by data-protection laws.

“Organisations must conduct a data protection impact assessment before starting any processing that is likely to result in high risk, such as processing special category biometric data,” a spokesperson for the regulator said. “Where they identify high risks that they cannot mitigate, they must consult the ICO. Organisations also need to have a clear lawful basis to process personal data. Where they are relying on consent, this needs to be freely given and capable of being withdrawn without detriment. We note the launch of Worldcoin in the UK and will be making enquiries.”

The wider long-term objective of Worldcoin is to ensure that people can financially benefit from the growing prevalence of AI – even if the technology renders obsolete many existing jobs performed by humans. Among its most ambitious aims include the creation of an AI-funded universal basic income for everyone that has created a World ID – although details of this possibility are scarce at the moment.

Its website says: “Worldcoin aims to establish universal access to the global economy regardless of country or background. It is designed to become the world’s largest human identity and financial network, giving ownership to everyone. All with the intention of welcoming every person on the planet and establishing a place for all of us to benefit in the age of AI.”

Sam Trendall

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