Sam Altman, the former president of Y Combinator, is working on a new cryptocurrency project. The token called Worldcoin will be distributed to everyone on Earth in exchange for their eye scans. The futuristic idea already has attracted many backers in Silicon Valley, including VC investment firms Andreessen Horowitz, Day One Ventures, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
Worldcoin project, according to Bloomberg, would create a global cryptocurrency by giving as many people on the Earth as possible shares of the currency. The coins would be shared with people who give their retinas be scanned by a biometric device.
The biometric scan would be assigned a unique ID number used only to avoid duplication, and all biometric data will be deleted without being stored. That ID number would be a personal Worldcoin account number so that no one can claim multiple accounts.
The startup was founded by three entrepreneurs, including Sam Altman, the former leader of the incubator Y Combinator, Alexander Blania, who was a Caltech theoretical physics student, and investment-firm veteran Max Novendstern.
Bloomberg reports that Worldcoin has already raised $25 million from investors, such as Andreessen Horowitz, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, Day One Ventures, and Coinbase Global. Testing of biometric devices is already underway on a small scale in some cities.
The cryptocurrency project proposes not only the universal cataloging of personal digital IDs, but also lays out the concepts of universal basic income (UBI) and global wealth redistribution.
There’s something to like about the basic idea because success by Worldcoin could improve many lives. There are plenty of stateless or undocumented people in the world who wouldn’t be able to access a government payments system.
But while information about Worldcoin is still fragmentary, crypto and privacy experts are already warning that the project might have dystopian implications, despite the promise that scan data will not be stored. They say that rely on people’s sensitive biometric data undermines the pseudonymous matter of cryptocurrencies.
Biometric data is so sensitive because it can’t be replaced should a malicious actor get hold of that data.
“If your Social Security number leaks, you can get a new Social Security number. If your credit card number leaks, you can get a new credit card number,” told Recode Evan Greer, the deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future. “If a biometric scan of your face leaks, you can’t get a new face.”
In particular, if Worldcoin uploads its retina scans to a central server for hashing, it’s still too risky because data could be intercepted and stolen in the process. It also seems that scanning devices would be connected to the internet that leaves room for potential vulnerabilities.
We don’t have much assurance for now that Worldcoin will be able to protect this sensitive data, said John Davisson, an attorney at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
“This company and this currency should simply not exist,” he stated, pointing there are better ways that funds could be distributed without compromising privacy.
“Apple has spent an enormous amount of effort adding biometrics to their devices, and their solution was simple: Never send it outside of the phone,” added Matthew Green, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Information Security Institute. “But that doesn’t work with a cryptocurrency.”
He emphasizes that biometrics night won’t stop fraud. “Nobody has any idea how to build an affordable iris scanner that isn’t vulnerable to some kind of spoofing,” he added.
Sam Altman’s track record as an investor and Y Combinator’s lead is impressive enough for other venture capitalists. He was an angel investor in several known tech giants, like Reddit, Airbnb, Pinterest, and Instacart. He also continues to lead OpenAI as its CEO and cofounder. But that project still leaves too many open questions, so a lot hopefully could change before launch.