An AI entrepreneur bets on cryptocurrency to mitigate AI’s dangers
The EU smacked Meta with the largest fine it has ever issued on data protection grounds on Monday, demanding that the Silicon Valley giant, which brought in $116 billion in revenue in 2022, cough up $1.2 billion for moving EU Facebook users’ data into the U.S., in violation of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation. The decision follows years of back-and-forth between Meta and EU data protection authorities over the company’s practice of moving user data in and out of territories where its infrastructure sits. ZDnet has a good breakdown of the backstory here.
Georgetown Law professor Anupam Chander pointed out on Twitter that the decision has a whole lot more to do with concerns about overly broad electronic surveillance by the U.S. government than it does with the improper handling of EU users’ data or with Meta specifically. Chander argued that it could pave the way to a global norm of so-called “data localization,” under which companies would be required to store data where they collect it. It might sound simple, but policies like this could really upend things for big companies like Meta and Google, whose business models rely on the ability to send data around the world quickly and to monetize it constantly.
In other EU privacy news, Spain is keen to outlaw end-to-end encryption, according to a bombshell document leak released earlier this week by WIRED. The key document is a survey of EU member states’ opinions on technical measures that might be taken to track down purveyors of child sexual abuse images. Of the 20 countries consulted, 15 expressed at least some interest in limiting end-to-end encryption, with Cyprus and Hungary showing special enthusiasm alongside Spain. If this were to happen, it could have serious implications for apps like Signal and WhatsApp, which allow users to communicate using a technical protocol that prevents anyone — even the company running the app — from reading the content of their messages. A few months back, when similar proposals arose amid deliberations on the U.K.’s Online Safety Act, the heads of both Signal and WhatsApp said they would stop offering service in the U.K. if the state were to try to weaken encryption there.
Signal president Meredith Whittaker elaborated on it in a blog post. “Let me be blunt,” she wrote, “encryption is either broken for everyone, or it works for everyone. There is no way to create a safe backdoor.” True that.
Authorities in Guinea blocked access to major social media sites last week after several days of protests and rioting in the country’s capital. This week, military officials shut down two radio stations and threatened to do the same to any media outlet that “undermines national unity.” The West African country has been governed by its military since the 2021 coup that overthrew President Alpha Conde. Although the ruling junta has attempted to map out a two-year path to reinstating a civilian government, an alliance of opposition political leaders and labor unions has called for demonstrations and a fast-track back to civilian rule.
WE’LL GIVE YOU UNIVERSAL BASIC INCOME — JUST GIVE US YOUR EYEBALLS
Last week, I wrote about OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, who is in the limelight right now because of ChatGPT, his company’s signature product. One critical concern about super smart AI is that it makes the act of online impersonation easier and more convincing than ever. Old-school Twitter bots, for example, are pretty easy to pinpoint if you know what to look for — awkward phrasing, evenly-timed repetition of certain messages, occasional misspellings. But with tools like ChatGPT out in the wild, it gets a lot more complicated. How do we know who’s real when bots start to sound exactly like the real people they claim to be?
Altman has a solution for that, too. It’s called WorldCoin: a cryptocurrency system that claims to offer “a privacy-preserving digital identity designed to help solve important, identity-based challenges, including proving an individual’s unique personhood.” In its own words, WorldCoin also wants to enable “universal access to the global economy by building the world’s largest identity and financial public utility.” Talk about lofty goals. All the hype around ChatGPT seems to have been a boon for WorldCoin, which is on the verge of having raised $100 million.
How do you get in on WorldCoin? There are two routes you can take. One is to get in on the ground floor. Early WorldCoin investors include Silicon Valley venture capital kingmaker Andreessen Horowitz and Sam Bankman-Fried, of FTX dumpster fire fame. The other way is by letting WorldCoin scan your retina and create an “IrisCode” that will allow the system to verify your identity, forever. Since last year, the company has sent its signature chrome “orbs” (futuristic-looking balls with retina scanners inside them) to cities around the world where it has paid people to promote the cryptocurrency and lure in new users by offering them small amounts of cash, literally in exchange for their eyeball data. A big catch is that you actually can’t buy WorldCoin if you’re in the U.S. or EU, due to regulatory restrictions — this, alongside the company’s Cayman Islands HQ, doesn’t inspire confidence. Are we really talking about universal basic income here or is this just magical thinking pumped up by big VC money? And how will all this iris data be protected from breaches or abuse? WorldCoin offers precious little detail on this incredibly important question.
Now is a really good time to read Eileen Guo and Adi Renaldi’s 2022 investigation of WorldCoin for MIT Tech Review. The two journalists visited six countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to find out what exactly was happening when WorldCoin reps went out into cities and towns and tried to convince people to give them their iris data. They found that the company used deceptive marketing practices, collected more personal data than it let on — including data about things like people’s heartbeats — and did not get meaningful consent to take people’s iris scans to begin with. There’s clearly a lot more the public needs to know about this company, especially now that it’s back in the spotlight. Keep your eyes peeled.
WHAT WE’RE READING
It’s been a busy week here at Coda, so I have just one recommendation, which is Edward Ongweso Jr.’s expert takedown of venture capitalism for The Nation.