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The startup Worldcoin launched with big ambitions:
If a cryptocurrency were adopted at scale, it would vastly increase access to the internet economy and make applications possible that are now unimaginable. Unfortunately, less than three percent of the world’s population currently participates in cryptocurrency networks.
To rapidly get its new currency into the hands of as many people as possible, Worldcoin will allow everyone to claim a share of it for free. For this to happen, we first had to solve one major challenge: ensuring that every person on Earth can prove that they are indeed human (not a bot), and that they have not claimed their free share of Worldcoin already. This challenge is the longstanding problem of proving “unique-humanness” without intruding on privacy: how can you prove you are you, without having to tell us anything about yourself?
In order to get its system up and running, the company collected the biometrics of a massive number of people, converting that information into code. But, its plan ran into trouble far from Silicon Valley, in communities in places like Kenya and Indonesia, where it built a network of independent operators to scan the irises of people who had little understanding of what the company was up to.
There is a growing literature and practice around how to equitably collaborate with traditionally marginalized communities to build better technology. A pair of investigative reports into Worldcoin’s launch may well serve as the basis for an instructive case study in what not to do.
The first report, by Richard Nieva and Aman Sethi at BuzzFeed News, was published April 5th. It’s titled Inside Worldcoin’s Globe-Spanning, Eyeball-Scanning, Free Crypto Giveaway: The Sam Altman–founded company Worldcoin says it aims to alleviate global poverty, but so far it has angered the very people it claims to be helping.
The second report, by Eileen Guo & Adi Renaldi at MIT Technology Review, was published April 6th. It’s titled Deception, exploited workers, and cash handouts: How Worldcoin recruited its first half a million test users: The startup promises a fairly-distributed, cryptocurrency-based universal basic income. So far all it’s done is build a biometric database from the bodies of the poor.
Tech Policy Press had the chance to talk to both pairs of journalists separately last week.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.