Worldcoin suspended in Kenya as project faces global scrutiny

Citing privacy and security concerns, Kenya has suspended Worldcoin, the controversial iris-scanning project backed by OpenAI founder Sam Altman.

The Kenyan government has halted all activities related to the Worldcoin digital identity project until it can assess the associated risks.

The Interior Cabinet Secretary Kithyre Kindiki said that he had ordered an investigation after thousands of Kenyans showed up in the capital, Nairobi, to sign up for the project by using an eye-scanning machine called the Orb.

"Relevant security, financial services, and data protection agencies have commenced inquiries and investigations,” Kindiki said in a statement.

The aim was “to establish the authenticity and legality of the aforesaid activities, the safety and protection of the data being harvested, and how the harvesters intend to use the data.”

"Further, it will be critical that assurances of public safety and the integrity of the financial transactions involving such a large number of citizens be satisfactorily provided upfront," Kindiki said.

Anyone further aiding or engaging in Worldcoin activities will face legal consequences, he warned. Worldcoin Foundation said that the demand in Kenya was "overwhelming" and that it had temporarily paused verification services "out of abundance of caution and in an effort to mitigate crowd volume."

"During the pause, the team will develop an onboarding program that encompasses more robust crowd control measures and work with local officials to increase the understanding of the privacy measures and commitments Worldcoin implements, not only in Kenya, but everywhere," Worldcoin Foundation said in an email.

"Worldcoin remains committed to providing an inclusive, privacy-preserving, decentralized on-ramp to the global digital economy and looks forward to resuming its services in Kenya while working closely with local regulators and other stakeholders," it said.

Police disperse crowds

The decision to suspend Worldcoin came after police dispersed large crowds of people converging yesterday (August 1st) at the capital’s Kenyatta International Convention Centre to have their irises scanned by the Orb.

Authorities said the large crowds posed a security risk. Despite the ban, several hundred people continued to queue today before they were also disbanded, according to Capital FM, a local news website.

Few were aware of the registration criteria for Worldcoin, the report said after interviewing those in the line, with some pointing out they only showed up for the free tokens.

Applicants were promised they would get 25 Worldcoin tokens in exchange for their iris scan, or the equivalent of $54, which they can then cash out.

According to local media reports, 350,000 people have signed up for the crypto project in Kenya, where the campaign has entered its second week.

According to Worldcoin, the project has registered and created over 2 million digital identities overall, but most of those were issued before the official July 24th launch, when sign-up points were set up across major cities like Los Angeles, Paris, and Tokyo.

Global concern

Even before its global launch, Worldcoin has been under scrutiny in privacy-conscious Europe, where a German data watchdog has been investigating the project since late last year, according to Reuters.

The Bavarian State Office for Data Protection Supervision started investigating Worldcoin in November due to concerns over its large-scale processing of sensitive biometric data.

"These technologies are at first sight neither established nor well analyzed for the specific core purpose of the processing in the field of transferring financial information," Michael Will, the state regulator’s president, told Reuters.

The Bavarian regulator is the lead authority investigating Worldcoin under the EU’s data protection rules because Tools For Humanity, the company behind the project, has a German subsidiary there.

According to Tools For Humanity, its main offices are in San Francisco and Berlin, while the Worldcoin Foundation is registered in the Cayman Islands. It said it was complying with EU laws and would cooperate with government inquiry requests.

The French privacy watchdog and British data regulator both said they would examine Worldcoin’s activities following its official launch last week.

OpenAI’s Sam Altman co-founded Tools For Humanity specifically for the Worldcoin project, which aims to create a “reliable solution for distinguishing humans from AI online.”