Sam Altman's eye-scanning Worldcoin 'Orb' banned in Spain

Spain has banned Worldcoin for up to three months, drawing a sharp rebuke from Sam Altman's company, amid perceived privacy risks from the venture which scans irises in exchange for a digital ID and free cryptocurrency.

The Spanish data protection regulator AEPD said on Wednesday it demanded Worldcoin immediately cease the collection of personal information and stop using data it has already gathered.

In response to the ban, Worldcoin posted a blog response on its website Tuesday, claiming the AEPD was "circumventing EU law" and that “it operates lawfully in all of the locations in which it is available” and “under close supervision” of GDPR compliance regulators.

“It is also unfortunate that they are spreading inaccurate and misleading claims about our technology globally after our efforts to provide them with an accurate view of Worldcoin and World ID have gone unanswered for months,” the company said.

The AEPD said its action came after several complaints regarding insufficient information, the collection of data from minors or not allowing for the withdrawal of consent.

More than 4 million people in 120 countries have signed up to have their irises scanned by Worldcoin's "orb" devices, according to its website. However, the project has drawn criticism from privacy campaigners from Argentina to Germany over the collection, storage, and use of personal data.

Worldcoin Orb scan London
WorldCoin's iris-scanning device is seen at a sign-up site in Shoreditch, East London, Britain July 24, 2023.

Worldcoin's Data Protection Officer Jannick Preiwisch said in a statement that efforts to engage with AEPD had gone unanswered for months.

"We are grateful to now have the opportunity to help them better understand the important facts regarding this essential and lawful technology," Preiwisch said.

The Spanish regulator said the processing of biometric data, which has special protection under the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), "entails high risks for people's rights, taking into account their sensitive nature."

It said that urgent measures temporarily prohibiting Worldcoin's activities were justified "in order to avoid potentially irreparable damage," adding that not acting would deprive people of the protection to which they are entitled.

Preiwisch said that Worldcoin has been in communication for months with the state data agency in Bavaria, where its owner Tools for Humanity has a German subsidiary.

Regulators investigating since 2022

As the lead authority in the EU investigating Worldcoin, Bavaria was analyzing documents and carrying out onsite checks for an investigation begun in November 2022.

Its president Michael Will told Reuters that this "should allow us to present the procedure to our European colleagues very soon with a final evaluation."

Portugal's data authority said it was liaising with its counterpart in Bavaria while it analyzed whether Worldcoin's data processing complied with GDPR and said it was speaking with companies involved in the project.

A spokesperson for the UK Information Commissioner’s Office said organizations must conduct a so-called Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) before starting to process data.

They "need to have a clear lawful basis to process personal data. Where they are relying on consent, this needs to be freely given and capable of being withdrawn without detriment," the spokesperson said, adding that the ICO's inquiries were ongoing.

Altman says the Worldcoin 'World ID' will allow users to, among other things, prove online that they are human, notably in a future world dominated by artificial intelligence.

Worldcoin is backed by some of the most prominent venture capital names, including a16z crypto and Bain Capital Crypto.

Worldcoin and its biometric iris scanning “Orb” was first launched in July 2023, immediately raising concerns among France, Germany, and other EU privacy watchdog groups over its “questionable” data collection practices.

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