Worldcoin iris-scanning devices raise hackles among EU privacy watchdogs

France, Germany, and other EU privacy watchdog groups are raising concerns over the legality of Worldcoin’s new biometric iris scanning device – the Orb – citing “questionable” data collection practices.

OpenAI’s Sam Altman and Worldcoin co-founder Alex Bania officially launched the new digital identity and financial platform last week after a lengthy two-year beta period.

The mainstay of the crypto-based project is its WorldID – the first-of-its-kind "privacy-preserving" digital identity passport, designed to digitally authenticate a human being from artificial intelligence using blockchain technology.

To create a unique WorldID, an individual must agree to undergo a biometric iris recognition scan using the Worldcoin Orb device, which will be the person's only identifier.

Worldcoin Orb scan London
WorldCoin's iris-scanning device at a sign-up site in Shoreditch, East London. July 24th, 2023. Image by Reuters.

The large-scale processing of what will be billions of sensitive biometric data files by Worldcoin has prompted EU privacy advocates to raise concerns.

Germany’s data watchdog group, the Bavarian State Office for Data Protection Supervision, has been leading an investigation into the OpenAI CEO Sam Altman's Worldcoin project since November 2022.

Now, France’s privacy watchdog group CNIL and the UK privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch have joined in on the investigation, promising their own inquiries in support of the Bavarian office.

"The legality of this collection seems questionable, as do the conditions for storing biometric data," CNIL told Reuters news agency following the launch.

According to Worldcoin, since its July 24th launch, over 2 million people in over 120 countries have already signed up to have their eyes scanned to receive a “WLD” Worldcoin cryptocurrency token for participating in the cutting-edge technology project.

"These technologies are at first sight neither established nor well analyzed for the specific core purpose of the processing in the field of transferring financial information," said Michael Wills, the Bavarian regulator’s state office president.

The collection and storage of "sensitive data at a very large scale" can lead to a number of risks, including whether users have given explicit consent to have their highly-sensitive biometric data processed on the basis of "sufficient and clear" information, Wills said.

WorldID Orb sign-up center London
New WorldID users line up to undergo biometric iris scanning in London. Image by Reuters.

Several European supervisory authorities also see Worldcoin as a matter of interest, Will said.

British data regulators Big Brother Watch say there is a substantial risk that the biometric data could be hacked or exploited.

"Digital ID systems increase state and corporate control over individuals' lives and rarely live up to the extraordinary benefits technocrats tend to attribute to them," Big Brother Watch Senior Advocacy Officer Madeleine Stone said.

Privacy advocates say the wide-scale collection and storage of biometric data could increase surveillance or target certain demographic groups.

US privacy group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called Worldcoin's data collection a "potential privacy nightmare."

Still, Worldcoin has already set up sign-up sites for new users to get their faces scanned by the shiny silver Orb in various locations around the world, including in France, Germany, Spain, and the UK.

Worldcoin users say they have weighed concerns over data collection against their curiosity about the project.

Meantime, the Worldcoin Foundation states that the digital identity platform is "designed to protect individual privacy and has built a robust privacy program."

"The project will continue to cooperate with governing bodies on requests for more information about its privacy and data protection practices," it said, recognizing the Bavarian State Office for Data Protection Supervision is tasked with supervising the project on behalf of the European Union.

The German watchdog said it is leading the inquiry due to the fact that the American company formed to create the new Orb technology – Tools for Humanity – also has main offices in Berlin.

Headquartered in San Francisco, Tools for Humanity was founded by Altman and Bania specifically for the Worldcoin project.

Describing its network as "privacy-preserving," the company's website also says the project is "completely private" and that either biometric data is deleted or users can opt to have it stored in encrypted form.

The Worldcoin Foundation entity is based in the Cayman Islands.

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