Avoid global biometric identity schemes

By Jim Harper

Typically, cryptocurrencies defy traditional categories. Projecting existing policy onto the crypto world takes some doing. But a distribution plan for a new cryptocurrency called Worldcoin offers insights that apply to one of our more conventional public policy debates. Worldcoin’s plan to give currency to everyone around the globe replicates the identity, surveillance, and privacy challenges that a full universal basic income (UBI) scheme would pose.

via Shutterstock

It is no surprise that organizers of a new cryptocurrency would try to spur adoption and valuation through mass distribution. Widespread usage is one of the most important dimensions of a money system — the world-spanning US dollar being a superlative example. Initiative Q, now known as Quahl, made a good run at viral distribution of a new (non-crypto) money in 2018. They have yet to engineer the magical moment when users assign one “quahl” any value.

The Worldcoin plan befits the name. Anyone in the world is entitled to receive a share of WorldCoins (the Worldcoin currency). There’s a rub, of course. “For this to happen,” says the Worldcoin website, “We first had to solve one major challenge: ensuring that every person on Earth can prove that they are indeed human (not a bot) and that they have not received their free share of Worldcoin already.”

Worldcoin’s plan was met with hails of derision, not because of its audacity but because of the privacy and surveillance consequences. Devices called “Orbs,” distributed around the world, would collect images of each participant’s irises and convert them into a unique identifier. The identifier would be checked against a list of identifiers having previously been issued coins. If their identifier is not on the list, the person would be entitled to a certificate worth a share of the coins. Neither the identifier nor the coding of the certificate could be used to recreate its predecessor. So the certificate could not be used to calculate the identifier, and the identifier could not be used to replicate images of the eyes.

That is pretty good for privacy, because you cannot tell by looking at the identifier database who has received a certificate. You cannot tell by looking at certificates who has redeemed them for coins. But it has a potentially fatal flaw.

Worldcoin creates a universal biometric identification system. By capturing an image of someone’s eyes and processing it using the same logic as the Orb, you could tell if they had been initiated into the Worldcoin system. More importantly, the global infrastructure for machine-biometric tracking made popular for Worldcoin distribution could be repurposed to all kinds of tracking and control. The Worldcoin identifier, which must be shared widely to work, could become the new global social security number, a powerful tool with good uses, but also profoundly bad ones.

That is similar to the problem that would exist in any UBI scheme. Giving away money to people as such creates an incentive to manufacture more people — which is to say that fraudsters will pore over the identity scheme used by any UBI system for opportunities to create synthetic recipients. To counter this, a UBI system would need to ensure real people are receiving payments, and receiving them only once. Without a plan for monthly visits to the UBI payout office, fraud control would rely on a universal machine-readable biometric identifier. Good UBI administration requires powerful biometric tracking. UBI may come to mean “universal biometric identifier.”

Once in place, such systems are readily repurposed. The Social Security number itself, sworn at inception to have only one use in administering Social Security, is a (non-biometric) identifier that is used today in everything from health care administration to driver licensing and every form of financial service.

With all the administrative benefits of global biometric tracking, one might be inclined to shrug off the privacy costs and liberty risks. Those risks are remote in the US and quite imminent in China. They probably outweigh the administrative benefits. In exchange for those benefits, we may have a global biometric system that, in the hands of despots, takes all those benefits back — and much more.

20th century history is littered with populations oppressed or decimated using national identity schemes. A technology that makes such systems more powerful and global is wisely avoided.

National News Tags:, , , , ,