Ethereum research scientist Virgil Griffith has been arrested at Los Angeles Airport and charged with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) after presenting at a blockchain conference in North Korea in April 2019. If found guilty, he faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
IEEPA imposes sanctions on North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) that prohibits U.S. citizens from exporting goods, services or technology to the country without a government permit. It stems from North Korea’s series of nuclear and missile tests, generally regarded as antagonistic to the U.S., South Korea and Japan.
Griffith, 36, is a U.S. citizen but resides in Singapore — meaning he remains under United States jurisdiction for such laws. According to its official statement on the matter, the U.S. Justice Department said he has sought to renounce his U.S. citizenship.
US regards blockchain advice to adversaries as serious security threat
The offices of United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York and FBI Counterintelligence Division stressed that Griffiths’ trip to North Korea was more than just a hacker’s rebellious nose-thumbing at bureaucracy.
FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. said: “There are deliberate reasons sanctions have been levied on North Korea. The country and its leader pose a literal threat to our national security and that of our allies. Mr. Griffith allegedly traveled to North Korea without permission from the federal government, and with knowledge what he was doing was against the law. We cannot allow anyone to evade sanctions, because the consequences of North Korea obtaining funding, technology, and information to further its desire to build nuclear weapons put the world at risk. It’s even more egregious that a U.S. citizen allegedly chose to aid our adversary.”
Griffith’s Twitter feed makes no mention of his attendance at the Pyongyang event last April, nor are there any public details about his presentation or the meetings he joined. The U.S. Justice Department’s announcement noted he had presented on how blockchain technology and smart contracts “could be used to benefit the DPRK”. This included, it said, several specific questions and follow-up technical discussions on those technologies.
It added that, after the event, he encouraged other U.S. citizens to attend future events, and “began formulating plans to facilitate the exchange of cryptocurrency between the DPRK and South Korea, despite knowing that assisting with such an exchange would violate sanctions against the DPRK.”
What was the Pyongyang Blockchain Conference about?
The first Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference was held in late April 2019, and another event is scheduled for February 2020. Its website reads:
“The first Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference on April 2019 was a success where international experts in the Blockchain and Crypto industry gathered in Pyongyang to share their knowledge and vision, established long lasting connections, discussed business opportunities and signed contracts in the field of Information Technology.”
Conference organizers have clearly signaled the event is serious and eager to attract top international blockchain talent. In its FAQs, it includes the following reassurances:
Q: Are U.S.A. passports allowed to apply?
A: Yes, you are welcome.
Q: Will my passport be stamped?
A: No, for your convenience we will provide a paper visa separated from your passport, so there will be no evidence of your entry to the country. Your participation will never be disclosed from our side unless you publicize it on your own.
Coingeek has reached out to conference organizers via email for comment.
Arrest of ‘James Bond-like suave’ hacker highlights that human law still trumps code
Whatever ideology prompted Griffith to present in Pyongyang, his arrest points to the reality that governments will act against anyone promoting the technology as a work-around its regulations — and that powerful people regard this as a very serious matter.
The New York Times once described Griffith with the following sentence: “The cult hacker Virgil Griffith combines geekdom with a James Bond-like suaveness.”
His homepage, which features the above quote prominently, is titled “Life is a MMORPG. Grind. Level up. Conquer the world.” It introduces him with the following quotes:
“My goals are to expose corruption, curb abuses of power, and with “gloves off” ensure the digital age never becomes a digital dystopia.”
“I work for the Ethereum Foundation in special projects as well as research.”
“In a previous life, I was a scientist at Caltech researching neural complexity. Prior to that, I was a computer hacker.”
Whether one regards hackers and anarchists as morally righteous or otherwise, and regardless of the powers their technology grants its users, governments still retain the power to take harsh action against individuals whose work they see as a threat.
Julian Assange is learning these lessons the hard way, and Griffith’s arrest shows governments will not hesitate to punish players at all levels. Intentions and beliefs are no shield against their physical power, again proving the statement “code is law” to be little more than empty defiance as long as the status quo remains in place.
To survive in any useful form, cryptocurrency and blockchain projects must comply with existing laws. Life may be a MMORPG, but players must remain aware there’s no hack granting them power over the higher-level participants who can reach them anywhere.
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