Data privacy fears forces Kenya government to suspend World Coin

Wednesday August 02 2023

A youth is helped to scan his iris to create personal, secure identification codes as part of requirement while registering as a member of the new Worldcoin cryptocurrency at KICC in Nairobi, Kenya on August 1, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG


Just how safe is data collected by Wordcoin from the thronging curious public?

Kenya’s Interior Ministry on Wednesday intervened to suspend the crazy of thousands of young people in Nairobi who had in the last two weeks been lining up at various retail stores to have their eyes scanned to ‘verify’ their humanity. The prize is free tokens of Worldcoin, a new cryptocurrency that’s awarding people “simply for being human.”

And the Ministry said the large tranches of data gathered was a cause for concern.

The first free 25 Worldcoin tokens (WLD), which are currently worth about $57.5, can be transferred to a centralised crypto exchange and used to buy another digital currency, which can then be cashed out through a liquidity agent or sold for cash.

But while such free tokens, known in the crypto space as airdrops, aren’t entirely a new phenomenon, Worldcoin has caught the attention of experts and regulators for its unique requirement of a retinal scan before gaining access to the free gift.

Its creators, Sam Altman and Alex Blania, say that the unusual requirement to “prove humanity” by scanning one’s eyeballs is meant to “scale a reliable solution for distinguishing humans from AI online.”


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Their goal, they said, is to create a new digital identity for everyone across the globe, a move that is meant to improve access to the global economy by providing economic opportunities for people from all walks of life.

Worldcoin also claims that the biometric information, once collected, is converted into unique codes and stored in their decentralized blockchain, and cannot be duplicated or spoofed to create false identities or engage in fraud.

However, across the 35 countries the new cryptocurrency has already been rolled out in, experts and regulators are warning that it presents various privacy risks for those scanning their eyeballs, and that users should reconsider if the free tokens they get in return are really worth it.

In Kenya, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner last week urged citizens to “thoroughly inquire” how the sensitive data they’re submitting to Worldcoin will be used, even as it assessed the company’s practices in terms of the data privacy laws in the country.

This week, Reuters reported that a German data regulator is investigating Worldcoin due to concerns that the project is processing sensitive information on a large scale, which poses multiple risks to users.

But the predominant opinion amongst those scanning their eyeballs for the free tokens is that they have nothing to lose, a view many experts are averse to.

“Worldcoin doesn't offer meaningful informed consent to its target clientele. Most people sharing their phone number, email, and eyeball scan don’t know exactly how that data will be used,” said Rufas Kamau, lead markets analyst at Nairobi-based financial markets broker FXPesa.

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Sam Wakoba, founder of technology education platform Tech Moran, argues that unknown to those submitting their retinal scans to Worlcoin, their data can be used to “create a fake persona online, false credit history or an alternate identity.”

“Hackers can use this to access someone’s bank accounts, health records, apply for loans, or other uses. With such data,  it’s possible to create one’s identity and trade on their behalf or misrepresent them. These are futures stolen,” Wakoba told The EastAfrican.

Mr Kamau also says that those giving away such sensitive information are probably selling away their privacy and anonymity.

“You can also potentially lose your freedoms and rights if the project was to be controlled by an authoritarian regime that could potentially discriminate your access to services based on some select feature about you,” he argues.

Worldcoin and its founders maintain that the data they collect is safe and secure, but American tech newspaper TechCrunch in May reported that Worldcoin orb operators had been hacked, although the company denied claims that user personal data was stolen.

Many have also queried why the founders did not roll out the platform in their own country, the United States, first, if it is well-intended and really seeks to advance global inclusion.

“World coin needs a license to collect private information and a clear red flag is why it’s not doing so in the USA,” said Mr Kamau.