How Worldcoin Defied Earlier Halt Orders And Captured ~400,000 Kenyans

By  |  August 17, 2023

In the lead-up to the recent ban on iris scans imposed by crypto startup Worldcoin in Kenya, regulatory action had been in motion for months, reports have emerged. The Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ODPC) had issued orders to Worldcoin’s parent company, Tools for Humanity (TFH), to cease the collection of personal data, particularly iris scans, citing concerns about privacy intrusion and insufficient justification. The initial orders went unheeded, new reports suggest.

The ODPC’s directive, outlined in a letter, was issued in May of this year, TechCrunch reports, citing possession of the said document. The regulatory body called for an end to the gathering of facial recognition and other personal data by Worldcoin within Kenya. However, it wasn’t until this month that TFH stopped obtaining biometric data. This action followed a suspension by Kenya’s Ministry of Interior and Administration after the official launch of Worldcoin resulted in a surge of individuals eager to have their irises scanned in exchange for “free money.”

ODPC’s letter explicitly highlighted the failure to secure proper consent from individuals before collecting their iris scans. It pointed out that Worldcoin’s agents had not adequately informed subjects about data security measures and the intended use of the collected data. Rose Mosero of ODPC instructed TFH to halt all facial recognition and iris scan data collection promptly, including ongoing and future activities. The letter also barred further processing of the gathered data and called for secure data storage.

Recent revelations about ODPC’s attempts to curtail biometric data collection have emerged in a new legal petition filed with the High Court by the data protection authority. Last August, Oscar Otieno, Deputy Data Commissioner of Compliance, submitted an affidavit stating that the assessment of Tools for Humanity and Sense Marketing Limited began in 2022, culminating in a directive in May to cease processing sensitive personal data.

Despite this directive, TFH continued processing personal data until the Ministry intervened, leading to a suspension of operations. ODPC sought legal intervention to ensure Worldcoin preserves the data it collected from Kenyans while investigations into security, privacy, and the legality of incentivizing biometric data collection are conducted.

The High Court subsequently ordered Worldcoin to halt data collection from Kenyans and preserve all locally collected information between April 19 and August 8. This follows the August 2 suspension of Worldcoin activities by the country’s Cabinet Secretary for Interior and National Administration, Kithure Kindiki.

On August 9, following the suspension of Worldcoin’s operations in Kenya, Kindiki and one other cabinet minister, Eliud Owalo, were questioned by members of parliament about how Worldcoin set up shop locally, how it secured the required licenses for operation, and what will happen to the facial and iris data of nearly 400,000 Kenyans in possession of TFH.

According to Owalo, the Cabinet Secretary for ICT and the digital economy, Worldcoin was registered as a data controller in Kenya by the ODPC, TechCabal reports, but the license did not imply that Worldcoin had free rein to process user data in the country.

Worldcoin, which utilizes iris scans to establish a “human identity” and financial network, had initially launched in Kenya, rapidly attracting users. Its global launch led to the option of selling tokens for stablecoin USDT or cash. However, the promise of “free money” through iris scans sparked concerns about exploiting economically disadvantaged individuals, leading to government intervention.

Despite these challenges and controversies, Worldcoin aims to resume operations in Kenya in the near future. Amid scepticism from industry peers and questions about its biometric data approach, the project’s ambition to build a biometric database using cryptocurrency incentives has raised ethical concerns and prompted closer scrutiny.

Featured Image Credits:  Wilfred Nyangaresi/NMG

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