Crypto Developer’s Arrest for Aiding North Korea Echoes Eerily Prophetic 2008 NYT Profile

  • The FBI arrested an Ethereum developer in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving for teaching North Korea about cryptocurrency.
  • The Manhattan US Attorney’s office says the 36-year old Virgil Griffith helped North Korea to evade international sanctions.
  • The former hacker and tech idealist has been flirting with disaster for years. The New York Times did an eerily prophetic profile on him in 2008.

The FBI arrested a 36-year old Ethereum developer from Alabama at the Los Angeles International Airport on Thanksgiving. The Manhattan US Attorney’s office announced Virgil Griffith’s arrest in a press release on Friday.

U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman alleged:

Virgil Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions. In allegedly doing so, Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime.

Assistant Attorney General John Demers says Griffith went to North Korea to present information including “how to use blockchain technology to evade sanctions,” despite “receiving warnings not to go.”

virgil griffith north korea passport
Source: Twitter

FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney Jr. called Griffith’s actions a threat to US national security:

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.

Griffith has used his tech powers to make trouble for the establishment for years. He created WikiScanner in 2002, which cross-referenced the IP address of Wikipedia editors with a database of IP address owners.

That allowed the public to see, for example, edits made to Wikipedia entries from US congressional offices.

In an eerily prophetic 2008 profile on Griffith, the New York Times wrote:

He was once charged, wide-eyed rumor has it, with sedition.

north korea bitcoin cryptocurrency
Virgil Griffith’s case brings to mind that of Ross Ulbricht, who founded the Silk Road. | Source: MAHATHIR MOHD YASIN/

Virgil Griffith, the Latest Crypto Martyr

The International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) is the specific law Griffith is charged with violating.

The charge stems from a presentation Griffith made at the “Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference” in North Korea this April.

The complaint reads:

Pursuant to the IEEPA and Executive Order 13466, United States Persons are prohibited from exporting any goods, services, or technology to the DPRK without a license from Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (“OFAC”).

Griffith’s case brings to mind that of Ross Ulbricht, who founded the Silk Road, an anonymous, crypto-powered market place. He was sentenced to double life in 2015 for money laundering and other charges. A number of groups filed briefs to appeal his sentence in the Supreme Court.

Virgil Griffith is also reminiscent of the late internet “hacktivist,” Aaron Swartz. He faced 13 federal charges in 2011 for downloading academic journal articles from MIT to release to the public. After declining a plea bargain to serve six months in prison, Swartz hanged himself in his apartment in 2013.

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Griffith’s Defense Could Hinge on Whether or Not ‘Code Is Speech’

But the charges against Virgil Griffith also raise the specter of Daniel J. Bernstein, a Berkeley mathematics Ph.D. student in the 1990s.

He sued the government in 1995 for the right to publish an encryption algorithm that the government classified as a “munition” at the time.

At the time of publication, there’s not yet any public comment from the Electronic Frontier Foundation on Griffith’s case. But the digital civil rights group’s 1996 legal victory in Bernstein v. Department of Justice could come into play for Griffith’s defense.

Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, in the Northern District of California, established that “code is speech” in her ruling in Bernstein:

This court can find no meaningful difference between computer language, particularly high-level languages as defined above, and German or French….Like music and mathematical equations, computer language is just that, language, and it communicates information either to a computer or to those who can read it…

While it may be a violation of IEEPA and Executive Order 13466 to export “goods, services, or technology” to North Korea, what if all Griffith exported was speech? That would be protected under the First Amendment.

Austin-based Defense Distributed successfully used the “code is speech” precedent to win a settlement from the US Department of State in 2018.

The State Department took Defense Distributed to court for publishing files for 3D printed guns online. But shortly before the case went to trial, the government backed down and allowed the files to be published.

This article was edited by Josiah Wilmoth.

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