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Ethereum Developer Handcuffed After Visiting Pyongyang

09 Dec 2019   #Ethereum

The case of Virgil Griffith is a shining example of how participation in a blockchain conference can result in a criminal case. On Thanksgiving Day, the crypto community went buzzing after the news broke out about the arrest of a well-known programmer, a developer of Wikiscanner, and a valued member of the Ethereum Foundation. The FBI arrested Griffith at the Los Angeles International Airport on the charge of providing a highly technological, thus valuable information to one of the United States' biggest nemeses, North Korea.

The gist of the scandal

The news about the arrest had begun to spread after the Attorney's Office that belongs to the Southern District of New York issued a report which describes in detail Griffith's alleged crimes of sharing his professional knowledge about the blockchain technology at the Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference that took place in April in the capital of North Korea, Pyongyang.

The fact that Griffith spoke at that event does not constitute a crime, of course, but the authorities claim that he revealed the information which might help the North Koreans to circumvent steep economic sanctions. Moreover, Griffith had applied to the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control for permission to travel to the conference but was denied.

But we went nonetheless, after having obtained a visa with the help of the diplomatic mission in New York. But first, he had to travel to China in order to avoid the U.S. official travel ban. When in China, the programmer found a way to get a paper visa to North Korea, which is usually not being attached to the passport, so that there would have been no paper trail, thus no evidence of him traveling to the conference.

The long arm of the law

The federal investigators claim that at the event, Griffith has told the audience, which must have included the representatives of the authoritarian regime, about the possibility of laundering money and dodging the American sanctions with the help of the blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies.

The self-proclaimed disruptive technologist has apparently believed that he would be aiding people of North Korea, the overwhelming majority of which don't even have proper access to the Internet, to gain a better knowledge of blockchain. At the interrogation that followed the arrest, Griffith tried to convince the agents that he shared only the information that is publicly available on the Web and had to intention of sharing something valuable.

But the FBI presented a transcript of Griffith's communication with an unnamed person via a messaging app. When asked about how the Koreans could benefit from his lectures, the Ethereum member replied that they would probably use, quote, "to avoid sanctions."

Griffith's actions were brought to the attention of the FBI Counterintelligence Division by agent Brandon Cavanaugh, who got acquainted with the crypto developer through a series of prior interviews.

Right now, the infamous coder is accused of breaching the International Emergency Powers Act (IEEPA) by providing the adversaries with valuable insight into cryptocurrencies and, allegedly, discussing the creation of a new digital token, named simply "currency-1", that should facilitate the process of money laundering. Griffith will be brought to the preliminary hearing, where the judge will rule whether the prosecution has enough evidence to proceed with the case. If found guilty, the violator could face as many as twenty years in federal prison.

Author: Alex Paulson for

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