Worldcoin, the cryptocurrency project backed by US-based generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) company OpenAI, has come under intense scrutiny in Kenya due to concerns regarding its iris scanning operations. The project claims to have been conducting iris scans in Kenya since 2021, well before its global rollout in June 2023.
The controversy surrounding Worldcoin escalated when, on August 2, the Kenyan government suspended the crypto project over data security concerns. Kenyans had been voluntarily submitting iris scans using the Worldcoin Orb as a means of verifying their humanity in the digital realm.
In response to the suspension, officials from Tools For Humanity (TFH), the Germany-based hardware and software company that led the initial development of the Worldcoin protocol, appeared before the Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee to answer questions about the project’s operations in Kenya.
Sam Sadle, Head of Government Relations and Public Policy at TFH, revealed that iris scanning had been ongoing in Nairobi and other urban centers in Kenya since 2021 as part of a pilot program. He stated, “Prior to July 24th, we have been providing proof of humanness verification since 2021. We were located in more than 20 locations in the city, including malls; The Hub, Sarit Centre, Imaara Mall, and elsewhere. We believe we reached a broad stratum of people across the country.”
Worldcoin’s global rollout on June 24 was met with privacy concerns and questions about the security of the biodata collected from Kenyans. Adding to the controversy, new members were offered 25 free cryptocurrency tokens valued at Ksh.8,256 during the verification process.
The Kenyan government swiftly halted all activities associated with the crypto project, demanding that relevant agencies certify its security and data protection measures.
Alex Blania, CEO of the Worldcoin project, defended the free token distribution, comparing it to PayPal’s initial strategy of providing incentives to users. Blania stated, “You remember when PayPal launched it gave 20 USD to users because the platform is only useful when you have money to transact.”
Thomas Scott, Chief Legal Officer of Tools For Humanity, revealed that the project had been piloted not only in Kenya but also in Chile and Portugal for three years before the global launch in June. He explained, “The level of tech adoption, talent, political stability, and integrity here, we thought that this was a place alongside Chile and Portugal where the ideas alongside the technology could be tested to be improved.”
The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) disassociated itself from licensing or clearing the proprietors of Worldcoin. Governor Kamau Thugge, appearing before the committee, stated that CBK had no knowledge of Worldcoin’s activities in the country.
Worldcoin, on the other hand, asserted that it had been in contact with the Office of the Data Commissioner since April 19, 2022, where it was registered as a data controller and not a limited company.
Despite the clampdown in Kenya, Worldcoin has continued its rollout in other countries, including Germany and France. According to the company’s website, it has recorded 2,279,884 sign-ups and verifications across 34 countries. However, the project is also facing scrutiny in Europe for potential violations of strict General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in EU member states.
The situation surrounding Worldcoin in Kenya remains tense as authorities and regulators grapple with the balance between technological innovation and safeguarding individual privacy and data security.
Source: citizen digital