On Wednesday, Kenya’s interior ministry said it had suspended the local activities of the cryptocurrency project Worldcoin while government agencies assess potential risks to public safety. The project launched last week and requires users to give their iris scans in exchange for a digital ID. In some countries, users also get free cryptocurrency as part of plans to create a new “identity and financial network.”
The idea behind the project is to register humans globally and use them as a sort of universal identification mechanism in a world where AI is becoming more prevalent. However, it is doing that by drawing scrutiny from data protection authorities and raising questions about privacy.
A team called Tools for Humanity has set up stations where people stand in line to have their irises scanned by what the company calls an “Orb.” People who pass must agree to let the device record high-resolution images of their eyeballs. Then they are given 25 free Worldcoin tokens. The company has registered more than two million verified humans so far. The idea is to link those global IDs with a Worldcoin app allowing people to trade and transfer money between different currencies.
However, the irradiation of the eyes and the storage of those images raise concerns about the ability of the project to keep data secure and private. That is particularly true in Kenya, a country with notoriously lax security standards. The nation has a history of cyberattacks that have targeted the financial industry and the country’s mobile networks. Moreover, a senior lecturer at Northumbria University who studies cryptocurrencies in development has said that the way Worldcoin is harvesting people’s iris scans amounts to crypto-colonialism.
Despite those worries, some people still lined up to have their eyes scanned for Worldcoin. Moreover, the company has a big following online, with more than 200,000 followers on its Twitter account. However, the Kenyan data protection watchdog assesses whether the project complies with the country’s 2019 data protection law. The data commissioner’s office urged citizens to be vigilant and report any suspicious activity.
The decision by the Kenyan authorities is a reminder of how delicate it can be to balance blockchain technology’s promise of decentralization and trustlessness with the need for solid consumer protection. Moreover, that is one reason why it is essential to take time to evaluate novel digital projects before allowing them to operate in the real world. The suspension of Worldcoin in Kenya highlights the importance of thorough vetting. It should be a wake-up call to developers and regulators alike.