Spain tells Sam Altman, Worldcoin to shut down its eyeball-scanning orbs

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A spherical device that scans people's eyeballs.
Enlarge / Worldcoin’s “Orb,” a device that scans your eyeballs to verify that you’re a real human.

Spain has moved to block Sam Altman’s cryptocurrency project Worldcoin, the latest blow to a venture that has raised controversy in multiple countries by collecting customers’ personal data using an eyeball-scanning “orb.”

The AEPD, Spain’s data protection regulator, has demanded that Worldcoin immediately ceases collecting personal information in the country via the scans and that it stops using data it has already gathered.

The regulator announced on Wednesday that it had taken the “precautionary measure” at the start of the week and had given Worldcoin 72 hours to demonstrate its compliance with the order.

Mar España Martí, AEPD director, said Spain was the first European country to move against Worldcoin and that it was impelled by special concern that the company was collecting information about minors.

“What we have done is raise the alarm in Europe. But this is an issue that affects… citizens in all the countries of the European Union,” she said. “That means there has to be coordinated action.”

Worldcoin, co-founded by Altman in 2019, has been offering tokens of its own cryptocurrency to people around the world, in return for their consent to have their eyes scanned by an orb.

The scans are used as a form of identification as it seeks to create a reliable mechanism to distinguish between humans and machines as artificial intelligence becomes more advanced.

Worldcoin was not immediately available for comment.

The Spanish regulator’s decision is the latest blow to the aspirations of the OpenAI boss and his Worldcoin co-founders Max Novendstern and Alex Blania following a series of setbacks elsewhere in the world.

At the point of its rollout last summer, the San Francisco and Berlin headquartered start-up avoided launching its crypto tokens in the US on account of the country’s harsh crackdown on the digital assets sector.

The Worldcoin token is also not available in major global markets such as China and India, while watchdogs in Kenya last year ordered the project to shut down operations. The UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has previously said it would be making inquiries into Worldcoin.

While some jurisdictions have raised concerns about the viability of a Worldcoin cryptocurrency token, Spain’s latest crackdown targets the start-up’s primary efforts to establish a method to prove customers’ “personhood”—work that Altman characterizes as essential in a world where sophisticated AI is harder to distinguish from humans.

In the face of growing scrutiny, Altman told the Financial Times he could imagine a world where his start-up could exist without its in-house cryptocurrency.

Worldcoin has registered 4 million users, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Investors poured roughly $250 million into the company, including venture capital groups Andreessen Horowitz and Khosla Ventures, internet entrepreneur Reid Hoffman and, prior to the collapse of his FTX empire, Sam Bankman-Fried.

The project attracted media attention and prompted a handful of consumer complaints in Spain as queues began to grow at the stands in shopping centers where Worldcoin is offering cryptocurrency in exchange for eyeball scans.

In January, the data protection watchdog in the Basque country, one of Spain’s autonomous regions, issued a warning about the eye-scanning technology Worldcoin was using in a Bilbao mall. The watchdog, the AVPD, said it fell under biometric data protection rules and that a risk assessment was needed.

España Martí said the Spanish agency was acting on concerns that the Worldcoin initiative did not comply with biometric data laws, which demand that users be given adequate information about how their data will be used and that they have the right to erase it.

Sharing such biometric data, she said, opened people up to a variety of risks ranging from identity fraud to breaches of health privacy and discrimination.

“I want to send a message to young people. I understand that it can be very tempting to get €70 or €80 that sorts you out for the weekend,” España Martí said, but “giving away personal data in exchange for these derisory amounts of money is a short, medium and long-term risk.”

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