An iris scan for $54: Inside the Worldcoin controversy in Kenya

Kenyan regulators have banned Worldcoin cryptocurrency which requires users to scan their iris for tokens worth $54 over data and privacy concerns.

An iris scan for $54: Inside the Worldcoin controversy in Kenya
A Worldcoin user undergoing an iris scan in Kenya.

News of a new cryptocurrency launch does not spark the kind of interest it used to at the height of the cryptocurrency boom in 2021. Following such high profile failures, like last year's FTX collapse, only the die-hard adherents seemed to know what new innovation was happening in that corner of global finance.

However, when the Worldcoin cryptocurrency launched two weeks ago, it immediately gathered global attention with its promise of free money and the strange looking machines with which it gathered user's biometric data.

So far, Worldcoin said its has recorded over 2,166,400 signups across 120 countries. In the last seven days, it has 561,051 signups. 

Worldcoin was founded in 2019 by three entrepreneurs; Sam Altman, former head of storied silicon valley incubator, Y Combinator and co-founder of Chat GPT parent company, Open AI. The other two founders are Alexander Blania, a former theoretical physics student at Caltech University who now acts as the CEO and Max Novendstern, a veteran investor.

Worldcoin started with a seemingly altruistic motive to create a digital, global currency by giving as many people on the planet as possible equal amounts or shares of the same currency. The shares would be assigned to people who have their irises scanned by a biometric device described as a silvery basketball like thing called the orb to prevent people gaming the system. Each individual iris image would be allotted a unique number called the “Iris code” which would be the world coin account number of the iris owner.

However, the plan which has been backed by over $100 million in venture capital soon ran into several challenges even before launch. Worldcoin started to scan people before the coin launched to prevent users from claiming multiple payments. Scanned users were given vouchers to collect their Worldcoin when it launched.

A Buzzfeed News article published in 2022 detailed complaints from disgruntled orb operators, the company recruited to register users, complaints from registered users accusing the Worldcoin of deceiving them when they did not receive any money, months after they had their irises scanned and concerns that the company was using it's proposed cryptocurrency to gather large amounts of biometric data and perfect a new authentication technology for the blockchain.

After repeated postponements the coin finally launched on July 26 to immediate scrutiny from regulatory agencies all over the world. This however did not deter the over 2 million people the company claims has signed up in 34 countries since its launch. In Kenya in particular, the Commissioner of Data Protection warned citizens to do research and ensure that they received proper information before revealing personal sensitive information to Worldcoin even as it investigated the company's legality. These warnings however fell on deaf ears.

Kenyans trooped out in their numbers to get their irises scanned, waiting in long lines and congesting shopping malls where the Worldcoin orbs were available. In a country which has been racked by recent protests concerning the rise in the cost of living, the promise of free money was too enticing to pass up. The amount of Worldcoin which registered users will receive is approximately worth $54 which is equivalent to 7,700 Kenyan shillings, which is about half the Kenyan national minimum wage. The utopian ideals of Worldcoin did not matter to these Kenyans.

Worldcoin growth in numbers 

“I've heard there's money to be made here. The money will help me, right now life is not easy,” one of the registered users in Kenya told Rest Of World.

After continued advocacy in the media, the Kenyan Ministry of Interior suspended Worldcoin on Tuesday, citing data privacy and security concerns. The ministry said that the suspension will remain until it has investigated and confirmed the legality of Worldcoin; the purpose for which it plans to use the data and the safety of the data.

“Relevant security, financial services, and data protection agencies have commenced inquiries and investigations to establish the authenticity and legality of the aforesaid activities, the safety and protection of the data being harvested and how the harvesters plan to use the data,” Kithure Kindike, Kenya’s Interior Ministry cabinet secretary said in a statement seen by

Worldcoin has stated that it will, anonymise and delete users’ biometric data once their systems were optimised, thereby guaranteeing their privacy. But the company still has not committed to a timeline, even though it has scanned and stored almost a half million irises to train its algorithms before it launched, and claims to have registered two million users since launch.

The Kenyan Data Protection Act of 2021 forbids the transfer of biometric data outside the country's border. Under the law, anyone who acts as a data controller or processor must be registered with the Office of the Commissioner of Data Protection. The law directs data controllers and processors to handle data lawfully, be mindful of limiting data collection, restrict further data processing, and ensure data quality. They must also put in place measures to safeguard personal data.

Worldcoin is registered under its parent company name ‘Tools For Humanity’ with the office of the Data Protection Commissioner as a legitimate data processor, this means it is authorised to collect data from Kenyan citizens.

However, the headquarters of Tools Of Humanity being in Berlin, Germany has raised concerns about the purpose for which the company is gathering Kenyan biometric data and whether such data will be transferred out of the country.

This is what Kenyan authorities will be looking to determine in the coming days during their investigation of Worldcoin.

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