As Kudzanayi strolled through the mall with friends, a small crowd caught his attention. At its center, three men held up an otherworldly silver sphere that spoke in a brisk, business-like voice.
The men worked for a cryptocurrency company called Worldcoin, which had come to countries across Africa with a proposition for locals. The men were offering all comers a T-shirt and a voucher for $20 worth of Worldcoin, which one of the men boasted would appreciate 500%. All anyone had to do to claim this prize was to get their eyes scanned by the futuristic device, which they called “the Orb.”
Kudzanayi, a 32-year-old truck driver, needed the money.
“Face detected,” said the Orb in its robo-staccato voice when one of the men pointed it at Kudzanayi. “Open your eyes.” The machine stared back at him for about 30 seconds before the men fiddled with their phones and told him they were done.
When BuzzFeed News texted Kudzanayi months later to ask him about his experience, he initially thought the message had come from a Worldcoin representative.
“You are thieves,” he texted back in anger. “They robbed me of my money.”
Worldcoin promised to jump-start the global crypto revolution with an audacious plan: to give out digital money to all 7.9 billion people on Earth. To spread its crypto gospel across the planet, Worldcoin recruited a corps of “Orb operators” whose job it was to scan people’s irises — in order, they said, to keep people from claiming their payment multiple times. The founders, including the high-profile tech investor Sam Altman, have said their goal is ultimately to lift billions out of poverty through a universal basic income. Top Silicon Valley venture firms Andreessen Horowitz (which also invests in BuzzFeed) and Khosla Ventures have poured millions into the outfit.
The currency has not yet been launched, but a BuzzFeed News investigation has found that Worldcoin is already wrestling with a host of problems, from managing angry Orb operators to concerns that the company is using its cryptocurrency as a way to amass millions of biometrics and perfect a new kind of authentication technology for the blockchain era.
Confidential company presentations, Orb operator contracts, internal marketing materials, more than 100 screenshots of discussions between Orb operators and Worldcoin executives, and interviews with eight current and former Orb operators reveal that the company has angered the very people it says it’s trying to help. Users from around the world, especially in Africa and Asia, have sent hundreds of outraged messages to Orb operators demanding the money they were promised.
“You are thieves,” he texted back in anger. “They robbed me of my money.”
Orb operators themselves have faced arrest, harassment, late payments, and a changing wage structure that they say makes the work financially unfeasible. Glitches in the Orb’s technology, they say, have hampered the sign-up process and opened the door for fraud. Orb operators in Africa, Asia, and Europe spoke to BuzzFeed News under the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution from Worldcoin as well as local authorities. BuzzFeed News is not specifying the locations of Orb operators or Worldcoin users to protect their identities.
Worldcoin CEO Alex Blania acknowledged that people are upset, but said the company is learning through its field testing.
“Quite surely, in some places, communication, marketing, all of those things, could have been clearer and better,” Blania said in an interview with BuzzFeed News. “And we will improve that.”
The documents indicate that the true value of Worldcoin’s continent-spanning field test lies in its distinctive Orbs. Rather than just facilitating the company’s utopian promises, the Orb appears to be at the core of Worldcoin’s ambitions to dominate the emerging business of anonymous digital authentication: in other words, proving that an online avatar is a real person without revealing who they are.
“Ensuring a person is human, unique, and alive is an unsolved problem,” reads an internal Worldcoin deck marked as confidential, which was viewed by BuzzFeed News.
Worldcoin says that once its systems are perfected, it will anonymize and delete users’ biometric data, thereby guaranteeing their privacy. But the company still has not committed to a timeline, even though it has captured and stored almost a half million iris scans to train its algorithms.
The launch of the Worldcoin token has also taken longer than expected, now with a vague target of “later this year,” Orb operators have been told. Until then, every person who scanned their irises is left with a voucher for a cryptocurrency that’s worth nothing.
Andreessen Horowitz declined to comment on this story. Khosla Ventures did not respond to a request for comment.
Worldcoin’s globe-trotting crypto giveaway has taken it through rich European countries like Germany and Norway, but a focus of the startup’s data collection has been in low-income countries in Asia and Africa. Biometrics play an important role in colonial history: British administrators began experimenting with them in the 1850s as a way to control and intimidate their subjects in colonial India. Worldcoin’s activities in India, as well as other former British colonies such as Zimbabwe, where banks are banned from processing crypto transactions, and Kenya, where a new law forbids the transfer of biometrics data beyond the country’s borders, evoke Silicon Valley’s history of ignoring sensitive cultural issues and skirting regulations.
“Worldcoin has always tried to conduct field tests in a sample of countries around the globe that would be representative of the world as a whole,” said Worldcoin spokesperson Anastasia Golovina in a statement, noting that the startup has operated on five continents. “Before entering any new country, Worldcoin always conducts a legal probe to ensure that operating there would be legal.”
Facing hurdles with its Orb operators and local customs, the company has stopped operating in several countries, including Zimbabwe, France, and Ghana, according to Bloomberg.
All told, there is a disconnect between the Silicon Valley executives convinced that billions of people from diverse cultures will embrace their grandiose vision and the difficulty that Orb operators have faced on the ground as they gather eye scans from people around the world.
“They don’t care what’s going to happen to you as an individual,” one Orb operator said. “What they care about is what’s happening to their numbers, what’s happening to their Orbs.”
Blania strongly pushed back on the suggestion that Worldcoin’s purpose was to harvest the world’s eyeballs in return for a cryptocurrency that may turn out to be worthless. That notion “is just very wrong. I don’t even know where to start, like this is just very wrong,” he said.
Rather, he said, this was the only way Worldcoin could achieve its dream of introducing the whole world to crypto while ensuring no one gets more than their fair share. “We didn’t want to build hardware devices — we didn’t want to build a biometric device, even. It’s just the only solution we found,” he said.
In early December, Worldcoin invited a small group of top-performing Orb operators to a three-day retreat in Dubai to mingle with the company brass and strategize for the future. The group stayed at the JA Beach Hotel in Jebel Ali, a luxury resort overlooking the Persian Gulf, with an equestrian center, a nine-hole golf course, and peacocks roaming the grounds.
Worldcoin’s global head of growth, Shravan Nageswaran, was in attendance, as was Tiago Sada, a product and engineering lead. Also there was Piotr Piwowarczyk, head of growth for Africa, who lists a quote by Gen. George Patton in the About section of his LinkedIn page: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”
Blania was scheduled to attend, an Orb operator said, but backed out as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 surged around the world, and Altman didn’t attend, either.
Instead, Blania gave a virtual presentation in which he updated the operators on the company’s progress, including the number of sign-ups at the time (230,000), the number of Orbs out in the wild (30), and the number of countries in which the Orb was operational (17). Worldcoin declined to comment on the details of the retreat.
The glamorous trip underscored the Orb operators’ importance to Worldcoin, but the wining and dining in Dubai was only a quick respite from the grueling demands of the job.
Worldcoin describes the gig as an entrepreneurial endeavor. To become an operator, applicants must record a video introduction and write up a convincing pitch for how they would run their sign-up business. If selected, they start with one Orb and can earn more if they hit their targets, typically around 500 sign-ups a week. They are encouraged to hire sub-operators to work under them so they can cover more ground.
In some countries, especially those in Africa, people were reluctant to be scanned because cryptocurrency scams had run rampant. Others were just skeptical because the Orb looked so dystopian. Some assumed the distributors were with the Illuminati or apostles of Satan. But the money was hard to pass up.
“What do you think this is? A disco ball?”
Orb operators tried different tactics: hiring DJs and handing out Worldcoin merch, or holding presentations at universities or at the houses of community leaders. One operator asked passersby to guess what the Orb was. “What do you think this is? A disco ball?” the operator would say. An event in rural Indonesia attracted more than 100 people, including parents with kids in tow.
But these stunts also caught the attention of the local authorities. Three Orb operators told BuzzFeed News that at least two distributors were detained by police while on the job in Zimbabwe, where banks are forbidden from processing cryptocurrency transactions. Blania acknowledged that operators had been detained, adding that there had been “less than five” incidents.
After the mishaps, Worldcoin created boilerplate letters for authorities in any given market, explaining the project and the Orb. “The Orb operators are not collecting money or sending money out of the country,” reads the letter, which was viewed by BuzzFeed News. “People participating in this social project are not asked for any money in return. Instead, we all benefit when everyone takes part in the Worldcoin project.”
Run-ins with the authorities aren’t the only problem distributors have faced. Eight current and former operators who spoke to BuzzFeed News described a chaotic operation mired in logistical and technical problems where workers were largely left to fend for themselves. If operators signed up fewer than 500 people for two weeks in a row, they were forced to relinquish their Orbs, a process called “involuntary Orb return,” according to a deck on sign-up targets viewed by BuzzFeed News. (Worldcoin spokesperson Golovina said they do not refer to this process with that term.) On the flip side, getting more than 700 sign-ups for two weeks in a row made operators eligible for an additional Orb. “Just tell people it’s free money,” one operator said a Worldcoin representative advised them. But according to a document that lays out Worldcoin’s marketing guidelines, the company instructed operators not to say that Worldcoin is a “great investment” or an opportunity to “get in early.”
Two operators said the system could be gamed by signing people up more than once — a damning allegation for a device that ostensibly exists to make sure sign-ups aren’t duplicated. One of them said they repeatedly scanned around 20 of their friends one night to boost their sign-ups. Blania said incidents of repeated sign-ups have “definitely” occurred, adding that some early prototypes did not function properly.
The distributors described other challenges with the Orb as well. One person in an African country said they were so excited when they were approved to become an Orb operator that they quit their job and spent their own money on printing Worldcoin T-shirts to give away as merch. But it took five months for Worldcoin to ship them the Orb, and when it arrived, it was defective and prone to overheating in the sun. After they sent the Orb in for repair, they said the device was reassigned to someone else because they had missed their sign-up targets. Other operators also said their Orbs were suddenly reassigned because of lackluster sign-up numbers. Another person said they waited for months after their application was approved, but never received the Orb at all.
“Just tell people it’s free money.”
Worldcoin declined to comment on these specific cases, but Golovina said, “We want to make it clear that we are explicitly in testing mode and this means iterating and improving parts of our system.” Generally, she pointed out the company is still “figuring out what works.” “Given that we haven’t yet launched, missteps are to be expected,” she said.
Yet another operator described an Orb so glitchy that 60% of the sign-ups failed, according to a text they sent to other operators. Golovina said in a statement that this was an “isolated outlier.”
Distributors also complained of delays in receiving weekly bonuses (Golovina also described this as an “isolated outlier”). Orb operators were normally paid a flat rate of $3 per sign-up in tether, a cryptocurrency pegged to the US dollar. It doubled to $6 for every additional sign-up beyond their targets. At the time, Worldcoin blamed the payment delays on back-end problems as the company updated its technology, according to screenshots of a Discord where executives communicated with Orb operators.
People who signed up for Worldcoin were initially offered $20 worth of Worldcoin tokens (WLD). Late last year, the company instead began offering 25 WLD to new sign-ups. Until the currency launches, however, the value of WLD is purely theoretical.
(Worldcoin should not be confused with Worldcoin Global, another cryptocurrency that launched in 2013. “We are not the ‘ORB RETINA SCANNING WORLDCOIN,’” that token’s website says. “They are imposters stealing our name.” Worldcoin declined to comment on this accusation.)
Worldcoin has tried to keep its efforts under the radar. “We don’t want too much media attention until we have Orbs more widely distributed and the token is live,” Misha Wilcockson, Worldcoin’s interim head of marketing and communications, told operators on Discord in January, according to screenshots viewed by BuzzFeed News. The fact that the product is in testing and people still can’t use the token “makes it more risky and opens us up to a lot more criticism and negative backlash than when we are a bit further down the road.”
Upset with the launch setbacks, glitches with the sign-up process, and delays with bonuses, a group of Orb operators from around the world began to draft a joint letter of their complaints to Worldcoin.
The letter was never completed because few operators were willing to contribute their experiences, but group text messages reviewed by BuzzFeed News show their grievances persist — the latest of which is a new payment structure implemented in March. In certain markets around the world, instead of users getting a voucher for the full amount and operators getting a $3 flat rate, users now get the chance to claim 2.50 WLD increments every week for 10 weeks. If they do so at least three times, the operator gets paid $5.30 in tether. If not, the operator only gets $0.60.
“During field testing, we are experimenting with different incentive models and expect that this will continue,” Worldcoin’s Golovina said. “Given that, it is possible that our compensation model will change, perhaps significantly, in the coming months.”
Still, distributors are livid with the change, and have already seen their earnings fall. In protest, some Orb operators said they were holding a multiday “strike in operations” beginning April 1, according to screenshots of discussions between distributors, which were viewed by BuzzFeed News. “It’s not encouraging at all being an operator now,” one operator wrote in a text.
“Crying,” another wrote, adding an emoji face with a teardrop.
Despite the difficulties that Worldcoin has faced in its field tests, the company has already gathered almost half a million iris images, which are key to further developing the Orb. The sphere’s shape and shiny exterior is the brainchild of former Apple designer Thomas Meyerhoffer, who worked on early iMacs and was a protégé of Apple’s former chief design officer Jony Ive.
The device uses a thermal scanner to check people’s body temperature, a 3D camera to map out their face, and high-resolution cameras to capture video and images of their body, face, eyes, and irises, according to Worldcoin’s data consent form. The irises are meant for Worldcoin’s data repository; all the other information is gathered to ensure the Orb is looking at a real person and not a photograph. Worldcoin says the Orb protects the privacy of its users as it does not collect any demographic information such as their names, ages, addresses, or identity card numbers.
Worldcoin says it eventually wants to erase the iris images to protect the privacy of those who sign up for its currency. If perfected, the company says the technology will distill the image of each set of irises into a unique string of letters and numbers, called an iris-hash, to be stored in Worldcoin’s database. As the company’s data consent form states, data gathered by the Orb will be used for “purposes such as training of our neural network for the recognition of human irises.”
The company has not publicly committed to when it will stop storing images of scanned irises or the multitude of other data it collects. The data consent form gives users the option of withdrawing their consent, but it is unclear how Worldcoin would erase the data of an individual user stored in its banks if all the data is anonymized. It is also unclear whether it will ever erase the images already in its database. The data consent form says Worldcoin can share user data with third parties who can use the data as they see fit.
Worldcoin’s Golovina told BuzzFeed News the company would delete all its iris images and data once the company’s algorithms were optimized, but did not provide an actual date.
Blania has said Worldcoin will eventually become a nonprofit foundation. But while the company says the foundation would be governed in a decentralized way, it hasn’t shared specific details on how such a foundation would function, or how the data may be used. Blania also said the company plans to open-source all its technology in the coming weeks.
If the iris-hash matching tech works, Worldcoin will have solved a knotty problem: proving that a given online avatar is a living, breathing person — and not a bot — without revealing their identity or compromising their privacy. Tech researchers call this “proof of personhood”; it’s similar to captchas, the “I am not a robot” visual or audio puzzles you sometimes have to solve when accessing a website. In fact, in a confidential presentation reviewed by BuzzFeed News, Worldcoin said its technology “is a new kind of CAPTCHA for Web3,” a catchall phrase for a wide suite of technologies based on the blockchain.
“Is this a digital currency company, or is this a data broker?”
Blania described a futuristic world awash in Orbs of varying shapes and sizes, where each person would be assigned a unique and anonymized code linked to their iris that they could use to log in to a host of web and blockchain-based applications.
Blania did not rule out the possibility that Worldcoin would charge a fee for providing this service, but the startup primarily plans to make money through the appreciation of its currency. “You distribute a token to as many people as you can,” Blania said. Because of that, the “utility of the token increases dramatically” and the “price of the token increases.”
Key to all of this technology is the Orb itself, and the contract that Orb operators sign underlines the company’s focus on stress-testing it. “Your role is to help us evaluate the Orbs and how people interact with them,” the contract says. “You should think of yourself as a product tester.”
Blania told BuzzFeed News that the company was primarily using its field tests to see how the Orbs performed in different environments — from Kenya’s heat to Norway’s freezing cold. “In Kenya where there was like, 40-degree heat, and just the reflection on the Orb is something we have never seen here in Germany in the office,” Blania said.
Adam Schwartz, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the ambiguity about Worldcoin’s goals is troublesome. “The question is, is this a digital currency company, or is this a data broker?” he said. “Either way, the practice at hand, which is paying people for their biometrics, is very problematic to privacy and to equity.”
“Worldcoin is not a data company and our business model does not involve exploiting or selling personal user data. Worldcoin is only interested in a user’s uniqueness — i.e., that they have not signed up for Worldcoin before — not their identity,” Worldcoin’s Golovina said in a statement.
The company’s efforts to build its database could also run afoul of data privacy and processing laws in Kenya, where the company has extensive operations. Kenya recently passed a data protection law that forbids companies from transferring biometric data abroad without approval from the newly constituted Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. Worldcoin currently processes user data in the US, UK, Germany, Japan, and India, according to its data consent form.
Immaculate Kassait, Kenya’s data commissioner, told BuzzFeed News that her office “was not aware” that Worldcoin was collecting the biometric data of Kenyans and transferring it abroad.
The company has until July 14 to register itself with the commission and submit a detailed Data Protection Impact Assessment under Kenya’s newly implemented data privacy laws, Kassait said over email. Worldcoin’s Golovina told BuzzFeed News that the company would soon engage with Kenya’s Data Commission and had already conducted a “rigorous” privacy impact assessment.
Bryan Ford, who heads the Decentralized/Distributed Systems (DEDIS) lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and wrote one of the pioneering papers on proof of personhood in 2008, said solving the authentication problem in a way that preserves user privacy would be a significant advance. Ford, however, isn’t convinced by Worldcoin’s solution. The company’s decision to build and store a giant, centralized database of irises and iris-hashes, he said, is a massive invasion of user privacy.
“We dispute the characterization that collecting images of Worldcoin users is an invasion of privacy: If collecting images of people with their consent was an invasion of privacy, CLEAR” — the biometrics identification company — “the UN and Aadhaar would all be examples of invasions of privacy too,” Golovina said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
“Informed consent means that you are in a position to fully understand what is going on,” said Elias Okwara, Africa policy manager for the advocacy group Access Now, noting that a majority of Kenya’s population speaks Kiswahili. “So right off the bat, it becomes difficult to be able to explain to an individual what the data processing means.”
Golovina, the spokesperson, said that Worldcoin would soon roll out its privacy form in six languages and suggested that the Orb operators were live-translating and explaining the company’s voluminous policies to people who do not speak English. “In all these local countries, we have Orb operators, and their whole purpose and role is to explain to people what they consent to in their local languages,” Golovina said.
Any large biometric database is also susceptible to hacking, Ford said, explaining that the database could be compromised if someone hacks into the thousands of Orbs that the company plans on distributing. “Basically no hardware is reliably unhackable,” Ford said.
Blania conceded that “there has never been an uncracked hardware device” but said that Worldcoin was building fraud-detection mechanisms to identify compromised Orbs.
On Jan. 28, Nageswaran, Worldcoin’s head of growth, shared a disappointing announcement with the increasingly frazzled operators: Worldcoin’s launch had been pushed back once more, to give the company time to deploy more Orbs, make some of its technology open source, and stop storing users’ biometric data.
The announcement prompted an outpouring of soul-searching and angst, according to screenshots of an operator WhatsApp group chat, which were viewed by BuzzFeed News.
“We get a lot of shit about this, and if is postponed again I’ll have to buy flight tickets and flee the country,” one person wrote.
“They are using us as lab rats for trial n error. Unlike other companies who have figured out stuff beforehand,” said another.
“We’re gonna be hung in the public square,” said a third.
“We’re gonna be hung in the public square.”
Meanwhile, the company’s earliest users are fed up with waiting for the cryptocurrency to launch — and have directed their ire at the operators.
“Its now more than 3 months, what did you do with our eyes?” one person wrote in a text to an Orb operator, which was viewed by BuzzFeed News. “This was all a lie this worldcoin is the same as other scams. Prove me wrong if l am talking lies,” said another. A third called the operators “thieves” for stealing their eyes.
One operator said their team has received “hundreds” of angry texts from people about Worldcoin. They said some of their sub-operators have had to disconnect their SIM cards to escape the barrage of messages. (In this case, Worldcoin’s Golovina said the company took “immediate action” and “were told that this diffused the situation.”)
“I started to have a guilty conscience,” one former operator said in an interview. “You’re supposed to tell people what they want to hear, not the truth. And to this day, I still feel bad.”
“I started to have a guilty conscience … You’re supposed to tell people what they want to hear, not the truth. And to this day, I still feel bad.”
People may never receive the money they were promised. “We make no warranty … that we will be successful launching the Worldcoin network or issuing WLD tokens,” says a contract distributors must sign before receiving an Orb, which was viewed by BuzzFeed News. “We are providing the Orb to you for experimental purposes, to advance our objectives, including to gather data on the use of the Orb by end users, and for no other purpose.”
Worldcoin continues to face criticism that it has entered less developed countries with Silicon Valley hubris, with little regard for local laws or community impact. By focusing much of its attention on poorer nations, the company is taking advantage of “vulnerable people,” said Irina Raicu, internet ethics program director at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
“Long before deployment is even considered, have you really done that research and had that interaction with the people on the ground, and do you have that understanding of the realities in different parts of the world?” she said. “And here it seems like all of that is entirely backward.”
Blania told BuzzFeed News the company does a “very big legal deep dive” before launching in new countries. Golovina added, “Orb operators do understand their local situation, as well as what they should do according to our guidelines.”
While Worldcoin has continued to raise venture capital, the Orb operators still face sometimes hostile consequences on the front lines. “We have created ecosystems taking risks talking to Government authorities convincing them this is a genuine move,” one distributor told colleagues in a WhatsApp text.
“What we are bound to lose is a lifetime thing,” the operator continued, noting Worldcoin executives don’t carry the same burden. “These guys have totally NOTHING to lose.” ●