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Ex-Ethereum Employee Arrested for Speaking at North Korea’s Cryptocurrency Conference on Avoiding Sanctions

Virgil Griffith, a former employee of the Ethereum Foundation, was sentenced to more than five years in prison and fined $100,000 after pleading guilty to conspiring to violate US law: specifically, the Emergency International Economic Powers Act. from the USA (thank you, baby). The 39-year-old was accused of having “participated in discussions about using cryptocurrency technologies to avoid sanctions and launder money” with North Korean authorities. per billing sheetand if he hadn’t made a plea deal he could face up to 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

Griffith traveled to North Korea’s capital Pyongyang in April 2019 to give a presentation on blockchain technology at a cryptocurrency conference – despite both requesting and denying the US State Department’s permission to attend. Prosecutors said that Griffith understood how cryptocurrency could be used to avoid U.S. sanctions on North Korea, “took part in discussions about using cryptocurrency technologies to avoid sanctions and launder money,” and cited parts of Griffith’s presentation:

“The most important feature of blockchains is that they are open. And the DPRK cannot be kept out, no matter what the US or the UN says.”

The Ethereum Foundation said it does not approve or support Griffith’s visit to Pyongyang. What exactly the Ethereum Foundation does is a bit complicated: it’s a Swiss non-profit organization dedicated to the underlying Ethereum technology, founded by the same people, that “promotes and manages Ethereum”. Therefore, it does not ‘own’ Ethereum, but is inextricable from it.

Seven months after the conference, Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport.

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Ethereum co-founder Vitali Buterin has repeatedly spoken out against Griffith’s accusation, even acknowledging that going to Pyongyang was a very bad idea: “It was Virgil’s personal trip, which many advised against.” Inside a pre-conviction letter to the judge Buterin praised the positive impact Griffith has had on his own life and crucial aspects of Ethereum technology. Buterin also detailed Griffith’s curiosity about different cultures, though it fell to Griffith’s lawyer to call the Pyongyang trip “the culmination of Virgil’s unique and unfortunate curiosity and obsession with North Korea”.

“I became obsessed with seeing the country before it fell,” Griffith wrote to the judge in a pre-conviction letter. “Similar to someone offered the chance to see East Berlin in its last days before the Wall came down.”

There is some support for Griffith on the cryptocurrency side, unsurprisingly, with the thought that this is a heavy-handed pursuit of a blockchain evangelist to deliver a talk packed with information that is already public. At the same time, Griffith was warned not to go, did so anyway, and then spoke openly with US officials about it after returning. During sentencing, the judge said of Griffith, “This guy is willing to play both sides of the street as long as he’s the center of attention.”

Griffith has a notable career in technology: outside of his involvement with cryptocurrencies, he was the creator of Wikiscanner, a tool that discovers embarrassing edits of Wikipedia by prominent organizations. He also appeared on a reality show called King of the Nerds. your personal website do not exist anymore outside the Wayback Machine, although he once detailed his personal commitment to “exposing the corruption [and] curb abuses of power”.

US Attorney Damian Williams played to type, saying in a statement that “justice has been served”.

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