Worldcoin has been scanning Kenyans' eyeballs since 2021, officials tell Parliament

Worldcoin has been scanning Kenyans' eyeballs since 2021, officials tell Parliament

Sam Sadle, the Head of Government Relations and Public Policy at Tools For Humanity appears before the Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee on September 6, 2023.

Worldcoin, the cryptocurrency project by US generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) company OpenAI, says it has been conducting iris scans in Kenya way before the project’s June rollout.

The crypto project was suspended in Kenya on August 2 over data security concerns amid a hysterical uptake as Kenyans scanned their eyeballs with the Worldcoin Orb as proof of humanity against their online identities.

On Wednesday, officials from the project’s partner Tools For Humanity (TFH) appeared before the Parliamentary Ad Hoc Committee to be grilled on the crypto project’s operations.

TFH is the Germany-based global hardware and software company that led the initial development of the Worldcoin protocol.

Sam Sadle, the Head of Government Relations and Public Policy at TFH, said the company has been scanning people’s irises in Nairobi and other Kenyan urban centres since 2021 when they were piloting the project.

“Prior to July 24th, we have been providing proof of humanness verification since 2021. We were located in more than 20 locations in the city, including malls; The Hub, Sarit Centre, Imaara Mall and elsewhere,” Sadle told the committee.

“We believe we reached a broad stratum of people across the country.”

The Worldcoin project rolled out globally on June 24. But despite its ambitions of a decentralised global currency, the project was met with privacy concerns and questions about the security of the biodata the company was collecting from Kenyans.

This was heightened by the fact that new members were getting 25 free cryptocurrency tokens after the verification process, valued at Ksh.8,256 at the time.

The government stopped all activities associated with the crypto project until relevant agencies certify the absence of any security risks.

On Wednesday, Alex Blania, the project’s CEO who co-founded it with OpenAI CEO Sam Altman said the free grants were to incentivise Kenyans to adopt the project.

“You remember when PayPal launched it gave 20 USD to users because the platform is only useful when you have money to transact,” Blania told the House committee, referring to the US financial technology platform that allows the transfer of money among people via web services and email.

Tools For Humanity’s Chief Legal Officer Thomas Scott said they also piloted the project in Chile and Portugal countries for three years ahead of their launch in June.

Asked why they chose Kenya, Scott cited the country’s level of tech adoption.

“The level of tech adoption, talent, political stability and integrity here, we thought that this was a place alongside Chile and Portugal where the ideas alongside the technology could be tested to be improved,” he said.

“We hoped to find people who would adopt and champion it.”

Central Bank of Kenya Governor Kamau Thugge, appearing before the committee on Tuesday, submitted that CBK did not take part in licensing or clearing the proprietors of Worldcoin.

Njoroge also disclosed that the lender had no knowledge of Worldcoin’s activities in the country.

But Worldcoin has maintained they have been in touch with the Office of the Data Commissioner since April 19, 2022, where it was registered as a data controller and not a limited company.

Despite its clampdown in Kenya, Worldcoin has been rolling out in Germany and France, among other countries. The company says on its website it has recorded 2,279,884 sign-ups and verifications across 34 countries.

It has not been without backlash, though; the project is also under scrutiny in Europe for running afoul of strict General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) in EU member states.

The United Kingdom’s Information Commission Office said it would be “making enquiries” about Worldcoin, while France's privacy watchdog CNIL said the legality of the project’s biometric data collection "seems questionable."


Citizen TV Citizen Digital Sam Altman Worldcoin Alex Blania Sam Sadle

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