WorldCoin catches the eyes of the Judiciary and Parliament

By Irũngũ Houghton

The public debate that generated last week’s  column on WorldCoin continued this week with two significant new developments.

The National Assembly Ad Hoc committee have started their deliberations. The High Court has also been petitioned to rule on whether Tools for Humanity have broken Kenyan law. Initiated barely days apart, both processes are critical in determining who bears responsibility for any possible breach of privacy and the Data Protection Act (2019).

Listening into Spice FM The Situation Room this week, I was struck by the breakfast talk-show hosts’ merriment as they recalled Kenyans’ reactions to the opportunity of selling their bio-metric data to WorldCoin. Oblivious to the risks, some Kenyans have been apparently asking when they can sell their ears, noses, teeth, and even more private organs as well.

Tragically, public understanding of the risks of invasive collection of personal data may not shifted dramatically since 2021 Amnesty International and Open Institute opinion poll. That poll found 67 per cent of Kenyans were unaware of the Data Protection Act and only 46 per cent were aware of their right to privacy.

Weak public awareness places millions at the risk of identity-theft by criminals and data harvesting by corporate agencies who have understand that our personal data is the new oil.

Wash wash scam artists know this when they impersonate your friends to ask you for emergency help or wipe out your online bank and e-money accounts. The political parties knew this when they collected your names and identity numbers from building visitor registers and presented fictious membership lists to the Register of Political Parties and Treasury for public financing. We have yet to unravel who hacked citizen’s information on the e-Citizen portal, how much of our information was captured and how it has since been used.

At least three decades of email digital passwords has left most of us confident that, while not fool-safe, if our passwords are compromised, we at least have two factor authentication and can change our passwords.

Imagine a world where your fingerprints, voice or facial image is all someone needed to access your online bank accounts, pass through border immigration, or authorise payments. Imagine this data falling into the wrong hands in another country far away from you, what options do you have to recover this information or change what nature has uniquely assigned you?

Now factor in artificial intelligence. Due to technological advancements, artificial intelligence now has the capacity to recreate all this information from online photos, voice recordings or CCTV footage.

This Thursday, the National Assembly Joint Adhoc Committee into the Operations of WorldCoin invited the public to offer memoranda on whether the American-German company has violated the Data Protection Act by 8 September. The Committee seeks to understand whether the data collected was ethically procured, being held safely and for the reasons submitted to the young Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. It remains to be seen if the long queues seen recently at Kenyatta International Conference Centre also will find their way to the National Assembly.

The Katiba Institute legal suit against Tools for Humanity is classic strategic litigation in the public interest. Public interest litigation is a strategy that organisations or citizens use to seek redress for their clients, set legal precedent or enforce existing legal safeguards. Anticipated in the 2010 constitution, litigants have also used strategic litigation to build state accountability and raise public consciousness.

Under a certificate or urgency, Katiba Institute have successfully persuaded Justice Jairus Ngaah to stop Tools for Humanity and their agents from further biometric data mining pending the hearing of their full application. The substantive motion is likely to argue that the company should have their registration licence as a data-controller cancelled and all private information collected from Kenyans deleted.

Kenyans itching to sell their digital body parts may just have to wait a bit longer to see how the complimentary National Assembly and Judiciary hearings pan out.

Personally, I think this may be not such a bad thing.

Irũngũ Houghton is Amnesty International Kenya Executive Director and writes in his personal capacity. Email: [email protected]