People around the world are getting their eyeballs scanned in exchange for a digital ID and the promise of free cryptocurrency, shrugging off concerns among privacy campaigners and data regulators.
Founded by Sam Altman, the CEO of ChatGPT developer OpenAI, the Worldcoin project says it aims to create a new "identity and financial network" and that its digital ID will allow users to, among other things, prove online that they are human, not a bot.
The project launched on Monday, with eyeball scans taking place in countries including Britain, Japan and India.
At a crypto conference in Tokyo, people on Tuesday queued in front of a gleaming silver globe flanked by placards stating: "Orbs are here." Applicants lined up to have their irises scanned by the device, before waiting for the 25 free Worldcoin tokens the company says verified users can claim.
Users told Reuters they weighed concerns over data collection against their curiosity about the project, which says it has issued IDs for more than two million people in 120 countries, mostly during a trial period in the last two years.
"There's a risk with having the data of your own eyes collected by a company, but I like to follow the most up to date crypto projects," said Saeki Sasaki, 33.
"I was a bit scared, but I've done it now and can’t take it back."
Worldcoin's data-collection is a "potential privacy nightmare," said the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a US privacy campaigner.
Worldcoin did not respond to Reuters' questions on its privacy policies sent via email on Tuesday. The company's website says the project is "completely private" and that either biometric data is deleted or users can opt to have it stored in encrypted form.
Paid participation in the technology
In the lobby of a co-working space in east London on Monday, two Worldcoin representatives showed a small stream of people how to download the app and get scanned, handing out free t-shirts and stickers saying "verified human" afterwards.
Christian, a 34-year-old graphic designer, said he was taking part because he was "intrigued." He follows developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and crypto, buying cryptocurrencies "just for fun."
"I think going forward AI will be hard to distinguish from human and I think this potentially solves that problem and that’s pretty amazing," he said, declining to give his full name for privacy reasons.
Worldcoin tokens were trading around $2.30 on the world's largest exchange, Binance, on Tuesday. For many users, the promise of financial gains from the crypto coins was enough to make them hand over personal data.
Ali, a 22-year-old chemical engineering student who has invested some of his student loan in crypto, said he calculated that the 25 free tokens could be sold for $70 to $80 at current prices.
"I told my brother about it this morning. I told him 'it's free money, you want to come with me to get it?'"
"It's quite concerning but I think a lot of companies have our data at this point," Ali said.
UK privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch said there was a risk 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," senior advocacy officer Madeleine Stone said.
The project also drew attention from regulators, with Britain's data regulator telling Reuters it was making enquiries about the UK launch of Worldcoin.
In a mall in Bengaluru, India, orb-operators approached passers-by on Tuesday and showed them how to sign up. Most interviewed by Reuters said they were not worried about privacy.
One new user, 18-year-old commerce student Sujith, said he did not read Worldcoin's fine print and did not really have privacy concerns. He said he invests the little pocket money he gets from his family in crypto.
"While I was passing they asked me would you like some free coins? So (I thought) why not?" he said.