By Dr. Diana Rangaves, PharmD
Worldcoin, a US cryptocurrency, has recently faced a major setback in Africa, specifically in Kenya. The distribution of Worldcoin in the country was abruptly halted after the corporation implemented a controversial method of signing up clients – scanning their irises.
This move sparked concern and led to the Kenyan government intervening and delaying the global launch of the product. This incident highlights important issues surrounding the collection of personal data by internet corporations in developing nations, as well as the promises made by cryptocurrencies to reduce global wealth inequality.
In this article, we will explore the perception and reception of Worldcoin in Africa, specifically in Kenya, and discuss the implications of this incident.
Worldcoin in Africa
Worldcoin is a firm whose products include synonymous cryptocurrency. It was launched globally on July 24. It was created by the San Francisco-based technology business Tools for Humanity (TFH), co-founded by US tech entrepreneurs Sam Altman, Max Novendstern, and Alex Blania. It integrates artificial intelligence technologies with cryptocurrencies and blockchain in an open-source protocol to provide anyone access to the global economy.
In contrast to other well-known cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, Worldcoin gives consumers a token for the future without requesting any initial investment money. To obtain Worldcoin, people must scan their eyes through a sphere-shaped device known as the Orb to confirm that they are human and only sign up once. With the emergence of AI, the unique identifier is gaining center stage, and demonstrating someone is a human rather than a machine is critical.
Irises, like fingerprints, are unique to each individual. The Orb uses the iris structure of the subject’s eyes to generate a specific identifying code that serves as the person’s unique identifier. It is saved on the Worldcoin decentralized blockchain to prevent anyone from reproducing the code. After the identity is created, the scans are anonymized so they cannot be traced back to that person.
Worldcoin’s Launch In Kenya
WorldCoin is registered as a data processor by the Kenyan Office of the Data Protection Commissioner under its parent company’s name, Tools for Humanity GmbH, and it has approval from Kenyan authorities to collect private data from locals.
According to WorldCoin, data from iris scans is encrypted, and biometric information is erased. However, there are reports of WorldCoin orb operators being hacked and iris scans being traded on the dark web.
Regardless, there was a rush for WorldCoin in Kenya, which has one of the most vibrant worldwide cryptocurrency markets. Over 4.5 million people in Kenya possess cryptocurrency, and over 350,000 Kenyans have signed up to receive free WLD tokens. At Ksh 7,500.00 ($50.00) per person; Kenya’s current WLD token value is Ksh 2.8 billion (US$17.5 million).
However, the rapid adoption drew regulatory investigation, resulting in the suspension of WorldCoin’s operations and the sale of WLD tokens on the market.
Worldcoin Suspension In Kenya
On 24 July, Worldcoin announced its global launch, with Nairobi picked as one of two African locales. According to the company’s website, Orb operators – whom Worldcoin commissions to conduct the scanning and offer remuneration – were present in 18 venues across Nairobi before being forced to congregate in the Kenyatta International Convention Centre due to the presence of tens of thousands of Kenyans.
Kenya’s Ministry of the Interior and Ministry of Information, in a joint statement issued on August 3, stated that the Kenyan government had suspended Worldcoin’s activities in the country and that investigations had been launched “to establish the authenticity and legality of their activities, these include, the safety and protection of the data being harvested, and how the harvesters intend to use the data.”
The statement mentioned that clients had reportedly been given tokens worth about Ksh 7000 ($49) in exchange for the scans. The report claimed that while Worldcoin was registered as a “data controller” company, this registration does not imply that Worldcoin conforms with Kenya’s Data Protection Act, passed in 2019, and is modeled after the EU’s GDPR.
The statement emphasized that Worldcoin was not registered as a local organization in Kenya and that a local firm carried out the actions. It stated that Worldcoin was first stopped for 60 days in May 2022 pending investigations and that, following a spot check, the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ODPC) contacted the firm in late May 2023, requiring the immediate halt of sensitive data processing.
According to the joint statement provided by the two Kenyan ministries, there is a need to educate “Kenyans on the risk of cybersecurity attacks, data breaches, and the need for full disclosure before giving consent.” The ODPC, added that it had not lifted its suspension of Worldcoin’s handling of personal data and had “raised concerns about whether the consent sought from individuals was voluntary or illusory.” In this regard, the Office highlighted that “persons are asked to consent based on a monetary incentive provided for the exchange of sensitive personal data.”
Worldcoin’s Statement On The Suspension
The Worldcoin Foundation issued a statement explaining that the temporary suspension of the Nairobi verification services had been enacted “out of an abundance of caution and to mitigate crowd volume” after tens of thousands had waited more than two days. Worldcoin says the team will work with local officials to improve understanding of the privacy protections and obligations it employs in Kenya and elsewhere. They stated that the team will develop an onboarding program encompassing more robust crowd control measures during the pause.
The business intends to start up again in Kenya and collaborate closely with regional authorities. Worldcoin is trying to resolve the authentication issue in the Web3 cryptocurrency environment, where user data and assets are traded in cryptocurrencies. Worldcoin intends to grow and add more people from around the world. To prevent fraud and scams, worldcoin also intends to make its iris-scanning technology available to other businesses.
The perception and reception of Worldcoin in Africa have been significantly impacted by the controversial method of signing up clients. The halt in distribution in Kenya and the intervention of the government highlight the concerns surrounding the collection of personal data by internet corporations in developing nations. Additionally, the promises made by cryptocurrencies to reduce global wealth inequality come into question. The incident raises important issues that need to be addressed, such as the secure handling of biometric data and the potential risks associated with it.