The Eyes Have It

11/01/2023
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    Carlos Jose has his eyes scanned by an orb at a Worldcoin registration point in Barcelona, Spain. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)
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    A Worldcoin spherical iris scanning device (AP/Damian Dovarganes)
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    Daniel Kertusha has his eyes scanned at a Worldcoin registration point in Barcelona, Spain. (AP/Emilio Morenatti)
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    People line up in Tokyo, Japan, to have their irises scanned. (Worldcoin)
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    Worldcoin’s iris scanning sphere perches atop a metal post on the checkout counter at a store in New York. (AP/Bebeto Matthews)
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How do you prove your identity?

You probably have a birth certificate. You might have a passport. Online, you use passwords. That’s a lot to remember.

What if you had just one form of ID? What if it was something you always had with you?

What if you needed only . . . your eyes?

That’s the goal of Worldcoin, a tech startup by the masterminds behind ChatGPT. Worldcoin has launched its identification technology internationally. But some countries question its security.

In August, thousands lined up in Nairobi, Kenya, at a Worldcoin registration center. Worldcoin offered each $50 in a cryptocurrency called a “Worldcoin token.” In the midst of a national unemployment crisis, many Kenyans traveled from miles around for the “free money.”

All they had to do was let Worldcoin scan their eyeballs to create each person a unique, uncopiable digital ID.

At the front of the line, registrants stood before mirrorlike orbs. Cameras scanned each iris, the colored part of the eye.

These orbs collect measurements known as biometric data. Worldcoin uses this info to generate a “World ID.” (No relation to a certain Christian news media organization.) Someday, people could use World ID to sign up for websites instead of using dozens of different passwords. Hackers can steal passwords. But your eyes are unique. Nobody can copy them.

Will World ID make the web more secure?

Some lawmakers have doubts. Kenya’s government has suspended Worldcoin signups. France and Germany are investigating the company. Officials want to know exactly how Worldcoin will use the biometric data.

In the tech industry, companies often collect personal data, such as names and search histories. They sell the information gathered to advertisers and other interested parties. Users usually give permission for this sharing by agreeing to long, complicated privacy policies. Few users actually read those contracts.

But Worldcoin doesn’t collect just information. It collects actual scans of users’ eyes. Data doesn’t get much more personal than that! Privacy experts wonder whether Worldcoin could be vulnerable to data-hungry hackers. In places such as China, there’s already a market for biometric data.

Is World ID the future of personal identification? The technology exists. Now it depends on the companies behind it and the governments that regulate them. Worldcoin claims to give users control over the sharing of their data. Will that promise convince government leaders?

But there’s another important player: you. The spread of technology depends on the everyday people who choose to use it. Would you let Worldcoin scan your eyes?

Why? Big companies handle all sorts of data. It’s important to make sure they handle it well before we trust them with it.

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