OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s latest venture under fire for privacy concerns

Sam Altman has emerged over the past year on a ChatGPT-fueled tidal wave as yet another tech entrepreneur intent on ushering in a new era of civilization. But unlike his contemporaries, Altman isn’t interested in colonies on Mars, he’s interested in the creation and implementation of artificial intelligence. 

Altman, the founder and CEO of OpenAI (the company behind ChatGPT) is working hard to develop artificial general intelligence (AGI), or AI that is generally smarter than humans. The company’s goal — despite the many risks they themselves often trumpet — is to build and deploy AGI in order to benefit all of humanity. 

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But Altman, in true tech magnate fashion, isn’t tied down to just this one company. He has another venture, one that ties together AI and cryptocurrency in a new firm with lofty goals and privacy risks possibly more severe than those posed by his AI models: Worldcoin. 

The idea of Worldcoin is twofold. First, the company wanted to find a way to verify humanity in a world that is already teeming with AI bots. It’s achieving this through a piece of tech called the Orb, which scans people’s irises and converts those scans into a string of numeric code. 

Second, in a world that is already threatened by explosive AI-driven job loss, Worldcoin is intent on providing universal basic income to its users. Right now, that means 25 units of its Worldcoin cryptocurrency (for everyone outside of the U.S.). But the company’s goal is to scan every human on Earth. 

Crypto meets AI and privacy concerns abound

Worldcoin has stressed regularly that the focal point of the company is to preserve privacy. The intent is total individual fiscal control, while still maintaining anonymity. 

“Since you are not required to provide personal information like your name, email address, physical address or phone number, this means that you can easily sign up without us ever knowing anything about you,” the company’s website  reads, adding that Worldcoin never stores the data of its users.

Still, the company has faced fierce criticism since launching over the exact issues that it says are already resolved. 

Worldcoin’s ‘orb,’ which is responsible for scanning people’s irises. All biometric data, the company says, is stored locally before being deleted. 


Edward Snowden, whistleblower and privacy advocate, warned against the idea in 2021. 

“This looks like it produces a global (hash) database of people’s iris scans (for ‘fairness’), and waves away the implications by saying ‘we deleted the scans!’ Yeah, but you save the *hashes* produced by the scans,” he tweeted. “Hashes that match *future* scans. Don’t catalog eyeballs.”

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“Don’t use biometrics for anti-fraud,” Snowden added. “In fact, don’t use biometrics for anything.”

As Worldcoin has begun to roll out, it has faced criticism not only for questions on privacy, but also over issues of exploitation and deceptive marketing practices. An extensive investigation by the MIT Technology Review found that the company bribed people — with giveaways of AirPods, cash and cryptocurrency — in countries including Indonesia, Kenya and Chile to sign up. 

Worldcoin, who said the investigation is full of “inaccurate information,” has garnered around two million sign-ups thus far, far off from its goal of eight billion, but still a significant number of eyeballs scanned. 

Altman, posting a video of long lines leading to one of these orbs toward the end of July, said that a new user is getting verified every eight seconds. 

And despite the company’s apparent drive to use Worldcoin as a means of creating a soon-to-be vital universal basic income, about a quarter of its crypto coins, according to the New York Times, are being held for investors and company insiders.

The Kenyan government suspended Worldcoin’s operations last week over concerns around its data collection, in the wake of news that people in Cambodia and Kenya were selling their iris data on the black market. 

“Of course there will be fraud,” Worldcoin co-founder Alex Blania told Bloomberg. “It will not be a perfect system, especially early on.”

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