Singapore—Is Virgil Griffith a criminal or a hero? Opinions seem divided over the Singapore-based cryptocurrency enthusiast arrested in the United States at the Los Angeles International Airport on Thanksgiving Day, November 28.
The 36-year-old Mr Griffith, who visited North Korea in April, is accused of conspiring with North Korea from August 2018 onwards and is detained while awaiting bail. If convicted he faces a jail term for as long as 20 years.
Mr Griffith lives in Singapore and works as a research scientist for Ethereum, a blockchain-based cryptocurrency.
He had applied for permission from the US government to travel to North Korea earlier this year, which was denied.
But Mr Griffith found a loophole and did indeed end up travelling to the DPRK by entering via China, even posting about his visa on Twitter, and attended the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference sometime between April 15 and 27, and presented a talk called “Blockchain and Peace.”
According to the legal complaint filed against him, Mr Griffith has been charged with “violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) by travelling to the North Korea to deliver a presentation and technical advice on using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to evade sanctions.”
The complaint adds that one of the organizers of the conference told Mr Griffith to underline “the potential money laundering and sanction evasion applications of cryptocurrency and blockchain technology as such topics were most likely to resonate with the DPK audience.”
During his talk, Mr Griffith reportedly spoke about the use of cryptocurrency technology to “achieve independence from the global banking system.”
The legal filing against Mr Griffith says that after he was denied permission to travel to North Korea, he “began formulating plans to facilitate the exchange of Cryptocurrency-1 between the DPRK and South Korea.”
He knew that doing this is in violation of US sanctions against the DPRK.
According to the US government, his action constituted a transfer of technology, a violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and Executive Order 13466, which says that US citizens are not allowed to export goods, services, or technology to the DPRK without a license from the Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The Ethereum Foundation has said in a statement that Mr Griffith had acted on his own volition.
“We can confirm that the foundation was not represented in any capacity at the events outlined in the Justice Department’s filing.
“The foundation neither approved nor supported any such travel, which was a personal matter,” although the head of Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin, defended Mr Griffith, who is his friend, on social media.
He says the US authorities are needlessly “going after programmers delivering speeches” based on information available to the public.
Others have also sprung to his defence. 2600, a popular hacker magazine, says in a tweet that Mr Griffith’s arrest was “an attack on all of us.”
2600 adds, “Virgil is a friend, a 2600 writer, a HOPE speaker, & a true hacker who has always stood up for freedom & democratic ideals.”
The magazine’s editor-in-chief, who writes under the pseudonym ‘Emmanuel Goldstein,’ says, “He would not help a murderous dictator. He’s a typical hacker who loves technology and adventure.”
Meanwhile, Joseph Delong, an engineer for a tech company ConsenSys, has started a petition to have all pending or potential charges against Griffith dropped, using the hashtag #FreeVirgil. -/TISG