The story of Virgil Griffith
In 2019, Virgil Griffith, a member of the Ethereum Foundation team, went to jail. The New York City Attorney’s Office and the U.S. FBI believe that young developer has gone too far in promoting crypto software. In April 2019, he went against the will of the U.S. and spoke at a blockchain conference in North Korea, telling local officials about all the delights of crypting when making international payments bypassing sanctions. U.S. law enforcement agencies have not assessed Griffith’s activity and now he faces up to 20 years in prison.
Who’s Virgil Griffith?
Virgil Griffith is a 36-year-old native of the United States who lives mostly in Singapore. He is remembered by the crypto community for his amazing ability to patiently and incredibly clearly explain complex technical solutions.
11 years ago, long before the Ethereum, The New York Times devoted an entire article to a young “hacker”, calling him a “troublemaker” with a unique charisma that attracts fans of the technological world like a magnet. An ambitious programmer with a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, he was famous for his attempts to make the Internet better and freer. When Vitalik Buterin was still playing all night long in World of Warcraft, Griffith was already a famous personality in the circle of Internet geeks. He alone developed Wiki Scanner, a program to track anonymous edits on Wikipedia pages, and together with Internet legend Aaron Schwartz he developed Tor2web, a project to access Tor services from traditional browsers without connecting to the same network.
In 2013 Virgil Griffith became friends with Buterin and later became his mentor in the development of the decentralized Ethereum network. He was one of the first to read the early sketches of white paper. However, due to the excessive ambition of the project (from a technical point of view), Griffith first declined to join the project as a developer, limiting himself to a consultant role for Buterin and his Ethereum Foundation team.
While Butterin was working on Ethereum, Griffith published his first tweet about wanting to visit DPRK without going into details. After the successful launch of Ethereum and the beginning of active development of the project, the talented programmer still could not resist the opportunity to join the big business. In 2016, he joined the Ethereum Foundation team as “head of special projects”. Before that, he had a serious disagreement with users of the Tor network, who rebuked him for trying to sell information from the Tor2web database to Interpol and the Singapore authorities, including parts of users’ IP addresses, links to the most visited sites and timestamps. Griffith, on the other hand, explained his intention to raise money for advertising Tor projects by selling “minimal amount of data” that would not hurt anyone.
The young programmer couldn’t get any forgiveness from the Tor community, so he gave up everything and plunged into the work for the Ethereum Foundation. Griffith’s talent was obvious, so it’s no surprise that he quickly moved up the career ladder. He later co-chaired the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA), an organization created to promote the protocol to businesses and their clients. Later on, he also founded Ethereum Research, a website responsible for critical developments, on which the entire ETH community relies.
As is usually the case in such situations, after Griffith’s arrest the team started to disown one of its leaders. Thus, the Ethereum Foundation officially stated that the trip to DPRK was only a personal initiative and had nothing to do with the common cause. On the website of Enterprise Ethereum Alliance the name of Griffith from the list of members of the organization has disappeared, despite the fact that he is co-chairman.
What happened and what Griffith is accused of
What has Griffith done that he’s facing 20 years behind bars? Looking at that length of time, you’d think he’d killed, raped or at least built multimillion dollar pyramids like OneCoin. But no. U.S. law enforcement arrested Griffith at Los Angeles International Airport on November 28 — right on Thanksgiving. According to the D.A.’s report, Griffith was responsible for at least three situations.
He visited the DPRK without permission and crossed the border illegally. Initially, Griffith was going to conquer the audience of North Korea absolutely legally and even requested the appropriate permission from the U.S. government. He was not given permission, but the developer did not consider it an excuse to abandon his plans. Unwilling to listen to the authorities’ instructions, Griffith went to North Korea in a more “sophisticated” way — illegally infiltrated through China.
He spoke at a local blockchain conference. Griffith did not go to the DPRK to admire the scenery, his goal was to attend the Pyongyang Blockchain and Crypto Conference in April 2019. However, he did not sit as a guest at the local summit, but gave a speech entitled “Blockchain and Peace”, telling those present about the charms of the crypto industry.
He told representatives of the DPRK how to launder money with the help of cryptocurrency and circumvent sanctions. In his report, Griffith presented a lot of high-tech information, including taught representatives of the DPRK to circumvent sanctions through smart contracts and make cross-border financial transfers for money laundering, illegal enrichment and financing of prohibited projects. Also in a statement from law enforcement agencies said that after the conference, Griffith began to develop plans to facilitate crypto operations between North and South Korea, as well as began calling on his American citizens to attend the next conference in 2020.
One should not forget the incredibly strained relations between the US and DPRK. North Korea is one of the main opponents of the US, and according to the Americans, its activities threaten the whole world. For example, with the help of large-scale cyberattacks on banks and exchanges, DPRK authorities have stolen $2 billion to finance weapons of mass destruction programs. For this purpose, the North Koreans have attacked the financial institutions of 17 countries, so it is not surprising that the U.S. position has long been shared by states around the world, which has led to the imposition of many international sanctions on North Korea.
Virgil Griffith’s initiative led him to be accused of violating IEEPA, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which has prohibited assistance to both the North Korean government and its citizens since 2008. Failure to comply with the provisions of this document is punishable by up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Griffith is currently awaiting trial.
What really happened and what was the community’s opinion
The information about Griffith’s arrest sparked controversy and stirred up crypto tweets. The community was divided into three parts.
The first calls the crypto enthusiast a hero, admiring his attempts to spread the “Gospel of Ethereum” around the world, including in poorly educated and isolated states. They consider the accusations of the prosecutor’s office unfair, because the mass distribution of public and non prohibited information about open source projects is not the transfer of some secret data to the enemy of the state. The same position is held by Vitalik Buterin who nevertheless decided to support his friend, despite statements that Griffith’s trip was a personal initiative and was not connected to the Ethereum Foundation.
With the submission of ConsenSys engineer Joseph Delong, the crypto community began to publish posts in support of Griffith with the hashtag #FreeVirgil and also created a petition asking for all charges to be dropped from the “fantastic” guy who has earned a reputation as a “Man of Peace” rather than a war in his life. The petition was signed by Buterin himself.
The second part of the community disagrees with the first. It condemns Griffith, believing that in this way he is not helping North Koreans, but only the infamous respiratory regime of Kim Jong-un. Journalist Laura Shin noted that such conferences can only be attended by representatives of the authorities and especially influential people of the DPRK, as ordinary citizens do not even have normal access to the Internet, let alone access to the conferences. Executive Director of the Human Rights Foundation Alex Gladstein admitted that he is afraid to even think that someone is engaged in technical training for the North Korean regime.
But there is also a third part of the crypto community that considers Griffith’s actions ordinary stupidity. The fact is that Griffith was not trying to hide his intentions about the trip in any way, but on the contrary, actively tweeted about it. Thus, he posted a message in the social network that he was going to visit North Korea from April 1 to 8 and invited everyone to join him, adding that it would cost €3300. It’s noteworthy that Buterin, who denies any involvement from the Ethereum Foundation, in response to Griffith’s tweet wished him to enjoy the trip, which looks incredibly ironic. When one user asked if it was a good idea, Griffith said, “Probably not”.
What was Griffith talking about in his speech
The twist of the situation is that it is still not known exactly what Griffith was saying during his speech in Pyongyang. The prosecutor’s office accused him of providing information that could be used to circumvent sanctions. However, did specific instructions come out of his mouth?
Alejandro Cao de Benos, a native of Spain and currently working for the DPRK, was one of those who helped organize the conference. As early as in his June interview, he admitted that the DPRK’s national cryptocurrency was discussed by some foreigners at the summit. The idea belonged to people who were members of “organizations associated with the top-5 cryptos”.
But this is not what Fabio Pietrosanti, an Italian citizen who also attended the conference, says. Based on his words, the accusations are excessively exaggerated, because all the information told was “basic knowledge of Google level,” and the topic of sanctions was not raised at all. No one had an opportunity to talk to someone individually after the conference. Moreover, it seemed to him that among those present there were only 4–5 technically savvy people.
The surprise was Roger Wer, who published a conference photo of Virgil Griffith against the background of a presentation with the theme: “How I evaded sanctions and how you can do it. Using Ethereum to evade sanctions in 2019”. Interestingly, this tweet Ver published with the #FreeVirgil hashtag and stated that people fighting against sanctions are fighting against war.
Fabio Pietrosanti, who said that the conference did not raise the issue of sanctions, has been friends with Griffith for ten years and could try to just cover up his comrade. Anyway, even if the topic of sanctions was really raised, it is quite possible that Griffith told only about basic technologies, information about which is publicly available. And it is far from a fact that a country that managed to steal $2 billion by hacking into cryptocurrency exchanges has learned something new for itself. But it seems that the prosecutor’s office is more concerned about the fact that the Griffith report took place regardless of the details.
The future for Griffith
Griffith’s sympathy for DPRK is clearly not in his favor. And it’s not just about a harmless tweet in 2013 about wanting to visit the country and speaking out illegally at a local blockchain conference in 2019. On his Facebook page, he repeatedly posted posts praising the North Korean government. In April 2018, he even published a joke postcard allegedly received from DPRK representatives. It called Griffith “Dear Comrade Virgil” and said that they understood his sympathy for Pyongyang.
In late June 2019, Griffith tweeted that North Korea has a “market opportunity” to create a crypto exchange that does not need a KYC procedure. Now Griffith has been released from custody pending trial because he met “a number of conditions”. It’s probably about bail. Griffith himself hasn’t said a word about it yet. According to his lawyer, he’s “looking forward to the trial to tell the full story.” Griffith’s interests are represented by Brian Klein, a prominent lawyer who previously defended Charlie Shrem and Marcus Hutchins.
Some believe Virgil Griffith is a hero and compare it to his former colleague Aaron Schwartz, who hacked into the Massachusetts Institute’s paid online library and placed books in the public domain so that students could use the materials for free. For such actions he faced 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million. Upon learning about this, the institute withdrew its lawsuit, but the prosecutor’s office still left the punishment in force on the condition that if Aaron Schwartz wrote a heartfelt confession, instead of 35 years in prison he would only get 6 months. However, the enthusiast did not agree to admit the unjustly inflated punishment and preferred to commit suicide.
Others compare Griffith to Ross Ulbricht. Looking at the truth in his eyes, hoping for the best, he should prepare for the worst. Maybe he’s a really good guy and he was going to a conference with good intentions. Maybe he wanted to change the world for the better, make the Internet cleaner and freer, bring Ethereum to the masses. Maybe he didn’t hide his intentions on the Internet because he was sure he was doing a good deed without realizing what that might entail. But unfortunately (or fortunately), we do not live in a utopian world. The law is the law, and Griffith has broken it.
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