U.S. Charges Cryptocurrency Expert for Allegedly Helping North Korea Evade Sanctions With the Blockchain

A hacker-turned-cryptocurrency guru who competed on TBS’s King of the Nerds has been accused by federal prosecutors of assisting North Korea evade United States sanctions.

Virgil Griffith said over a decade ago he wanted “to create minor public-relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike,” in an interview with the New York Times, which called him a “twerp,” a “troublemaker,” and an “internet man of mystery.” At the time, he was known for creating WikiScanner, a tool that sheds light on who edits Wikipedia entries.

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Since then he has pivoted his focus to cryptocurrency and become a research scientist for Ethereum, a popular cryptocurrency. As a part of that role, he speaks at conferences on behalf of the Ethereum Foundation.

One such presentation in April drew the attention of federal investigators.

In a criminal complaint filed in the Southern District of New York last week, the Justice Department alleges that by traveling to and participating in a Pyongyang, North Korea, event called “Blockchain and Peace,” in which he spoke about blockchain and evading sanctions, Griffith violated the Emergency Economic Powers Act.

U.S. law forbids Americans from providing any goods, services, or technology to North Korea without a license from the Treasury Department.

The complaint states that in his speech, Griffith told North Korea how it could “use these technologies to achieve independence from the global banking system.”

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U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said in a statement that the allegations state that “Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions.”

According to the complaint, Griffith went to the conference even though the State Department denied him permission to attend. The complaint alleges that an event organizer told Griffith that he should emphasize that “potential money laundering and sanction evasion applications of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology as such topics were most likely to resonate” with the attendees.

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Following the event, Griffith plotted to assist a cryptocurrency exchange between South and North Korea, even though he acknowledged that doing so would violate sanctions placed against North Korea, according to the complaint.

Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin defended Griffith in a Twitter thread by condemning the U.S.’s economic isolation of North Korea and downplaying the information Giffith allegedly provided the event attendees.

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I don’t think what Virgil did gave DRPK any kind of real help in doing anything bad,” he tweeted.He *delivered a presentation based on publicly available info about open-source software*. There was no weird hackery ‘advanced tutoring’.”

Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday.

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About the author

Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo