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ARGENTINA | 08-04-2024 17:26

Amid crisis, half-million Argentines give up iris scans for cryptocurrency

In recent months, hundreds of thousands of people have stood in front of an orb to scan the iris of their eyes in inflation-hit Argentina. But the Worldcoin cryptocurrency, with a verification system based on iris recognition, is being closely watched by regulators in several countries.

Argentines eyeing a financial boost are lining up by the thousands to have their irises scanned in exchange for a few crypto tokens as part of an online biometrics project under scrutiny in several countries.

Some three million people worldwide have so far provided their iris data to Worldcoin, an initiative of OpenAI chief Sam Altman, but few have embraced the project more fervently than Argentines.

Half-a-million people across the country have participated since Worldcoin launched last July, and queues for scans have grown longer in recent months of fast-shrinking disposable income.

At a shopping centre in Buenos Aires, Juan Sosa stands before a silver orb to scan his iris in exchange for cryptocurrency, as has also been done by hundreds of thousands of Argentines battered by inflation and fiscal adjustment.

“I’m doing it because I don’t have one peso left, there’s no other reason,” mutters Sosa, a 64-year-old martial arts teacher. “I didn’t mean to do it, but because of my age, nobody will give me work, and I need the money.”

He stands for just a few seconds in front of a silver sphere with a built-in camera that looks like something out of a science fiction film: a circular light beam flashes, and soon he will receive his tokens.

The project seeks to use these iris scans – unique to each person on Earth – to develop a digital identification system, a sort of passport that will guarantee the holder is a real human being and not a bot, thus securing online transactions.

Volunteers do not provide any other information such as their name, address or phone number. The personal iris data is encrypted with “state-of-the-art security features” and, according to Worldcoin, safe.

The company says that the “Worldcoin Foundation and its collaborator Tools for Humanity have never sold, are not selling, nor will they ever sell any personal data, including biometric ones.”


Safety concerns

Tiago Sada, product manager at Tools for Humanity, the company behind Worldcoin, said: “We’ve always had and will always have an open dialogue with regulators on financial and privacy aspects.”

He also claimed that investigations in different countries “to check commitment compliance are perfectly normal.

Yet Kenya, Spain and Portugal have ordered it to pause collecting biometric data on their territories pending investigations by numerous countries into possible privacy concerns.

Argentina's own Agency for Access to Public Information has said it is verifying Worldcoin's "security measures" with a view to "protecting the privacy of the users." 

It has yet to make a ruling and has not suspended data collection.

Yet Worldcoin is all the rage in the country, which is suffering from inflation exceeding 250 percent and is facing severe austerity measures under new President Javier Milei.

“There are people going through very tough times, not being able to make ends meet, but they do these things,” said Miriam Marrero, a 42-year-old supermarket cashier, pointing to the orb that has just scanned her. 

"Sometimes, to have a roof over your head, you need to do other things to be able to afford it. Otherwise, in Argentina today, you can't afford a roof."

For volunteering their data, initial participants receive 10 tokens each of Worldcoin's own cryptocurrency, the WLD.

In Argentina, with its notoriously unstable exchange rate, the value differs wildly; when Sosa and Marrero received theirs, 10 tokens were worth the equivalent of about US$80.


'Out of necessity'

Natalia Zuazo, a technology policy specialist and director of digital consulting firm Salto Agencia, told AFP that Worldcoin was attracting most volunteers in "countries in crisis... the poorest countries, because people are more likely to enter into such transactions."

However, biometric data such as the iris, which is unique in every human being, are “ultra sensitive,” warned Zuazo.

“I don’t believe that people do not understand in the least the implications it has; they just do it out of necessity. And there is also still a very optimistic and magical thing created by the orb, curiosity,” she said.

Zuazo characterises Worldcoin as a “messianic attempt at digital identity”, and she pointed out that: “If you look at the map, they’re obviously going to countries in a crisis, the poorest countries, because people are more willing to make these exchanges.”

Student Ulises Herrera, 20, said he would never have undergone a scan without the economic incentive.

"The iris is something that cannot be changed and I don't know who has that data. That's what scares me," he told AFP.

Others are more laid back about it.

“I’ve been giving my personal data to a bunch of companies for years, at least these will give me money,” joked Federico Mastronardi, a 33-year-old musician who has just made an appointment to scan his iris in Buenos Aires.

Marrero also laughs it off: “I’m not afraid of there being another version of me in the future – as long as it is improved.”

by Tomás Viola, AFP

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