At the start of the year, 500,000 Argentines agreed to scan their irises with Worldcoin, in exchange for a few cryptocurrencies.

A few dollars in the back of their eyes: in a country drunk with inflation, to which is added a new austerity policy, tens of thousands of Argentines lend their irises to a biometric scan for the cryptocurrency Worldcoin.

In a small shopping mall in Buenos Aires, Juan Sosa freezes for a few seconds in front of the silver sphere with an integrated camera, which looks like something out of an old science fiction film. A circular glow passes and he will soon receive a transfer of tokens, the equivalent of around 80 dollars, to his digital wallet.

“I do it because I no longer have a peso. For nothing else,” grumbles the 64-year-old martial arts teacher. “I didn’t want to do it, but at my age no one gives me work anymore, and I need the money,” he told AFP.

There are many profiles like Juan Sosa in the queues at the Worldcoin stands in the capital (250 in the country) where young operators chain iris recordings with the “orb” (sphere), the biometric device.

For Worldcoin, this is not a “transaction”, iris for money. But the first steps towards building “the largest financial and identification network in the world that respects privacy”.

The iris represents a kind of digital passport powered by blockchain, allowing users to prove their identity online, without sharing personal data. With the hope of a universal income denominated in cryptocurrency on the horizon.

Worldcoin’s verification system based on iris recognition, launched in July 2023 by OpenAI boss Sam Altman, is closely scrutinized by regulators in several countries, who have concerns about data protection. In March Spain, then Portugal, ordered Worldcoin to suspend their collection, pending investigations.

“Normal” investigations

But in today’s Argentina, with 211% inflation in 2023 and an austerity cure under the ultra-liberal Milei in 2024, Worldcoin is a hit: at the start of the year, 500,000 people, or more than 15% of the three million worldwide who “delivered” their iris were Argentinian, according to the company’s data in January.

“For a lot of people it’s going very badly, they can no longer do it with a salary, that’s why they do this kind of thing,” says Miriam Marrero, a 42-year-old cashier, pointing to the orb ” who just scanned it. She also does it for the money, in this case to give a friend a helping hand.

The company assures that “security and privacy” are priorities and that “the orb has robust security features to prevent spoofing, tampering or hacking.” Tiago Sada, product manager at “Tools for Humanity”, the Californian holding company behind Worldcoin, also assures AFP that he has “an open dialogue with the regulators (of each country) on the financial aspect as well as on confidentiality”.

The ongoing investigations “to verify that commitments are kept are perfectly normal,” he believes. Like the one carried out in Argentina by the AAIP, the agency ensuring transparency and data protection.

“Magic” of the orb

The fact remains that biometric data like the iris, unique to each human, is “ultra-sensitive”, insists Natalia Zuazo, analyst and digital consultant from the Salta Agencia agency.

“I don’t think people understand the implications, but many do it out of necessity,” in a country with a minimum wage of around $220. “And there is also a notion of magic generated by the sphere, a curiosity,” she adds.

For Porteños who have their iris immortalized, many questions remain. “The iris is something unique, I don’t know who has this data, that worries me a little,” agrees Ulises Herrera, a 20-year-old student. Who would not have done it without an economic emergency either.

But many Argentines, in difficulty, are hardly attentive. “I have been giving my personal data to a host of companies for years. At least they will give me money!” sneers Federico Mastronardi, a penniless 33-year-old musician. Miriam laughs: “I’m not afraid that with this they will one day create ‘another version’ of me. As long as they make it better!”


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