Tuscaloosa man arrested after giving presentation on cryptocurrency in North Korea

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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — A Tuscaloosa man was recently arrested and charged with allegedly assisting North Korea to get around international sanctions by giving officials a presentation on how to use cryptocurrency.

Virgil Griffith, who once described himself in a 2008 New York Times Magazine piece as a “disruptive technologist,” was arrested on Thanksgiving at Los Angeles International Airport and charged with conspiracy to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, according to a complaint filed by the U.S. Attorneys Office in the Southern District of New York.

Specifically, prosecutors allege that Griffith, who grew up in Tuscaloosa and briefly spent time at the University of Alabama, traveled to North Korea to give a presentation at the “Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference,” despite being denied permission by the U.S. government to do so, citing that doing so would violate sanctions against the country.

“As 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,” U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman wrote in a statement released Nov. 29. “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.”

Prosecutors also claim that while at the conference, Griffith discussed how the country could use blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to launder money and evade sanctions.

“Griffith identified several DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference attendees who appeared to work for the North Korean government, and who, during his presentation, asked GRIFFITH specific questions about blockchain and cryptocurrency and prompted discussions on technical aspects of those technologies,” the statement read.

William F. Sweeney, Jr., assistant director-in-charge of the FBI, said in the statement from prosecutors that North Korea proves a threat to the United States’ national security.

“We cannot allow anyone to evade sanctions, because the consequences of North Korea obtaining funding, technology, and information to further its desire to build nuclear weapons put the world at risk,” Sweeney said. “It’s even more egregious that a U.S. citizen allegedly chose to aid our adversary.”

Griffith, 36, was born in Birmingham and grew up in Tuscaloosa. He graduated from the Alabama School of Mathematics and Science in 2002 and spent two years at the University of Alabama, where he studied computer and cognitive science. However, according to the Times piece, Griffith dropped out after he and other student were sued by Blackboard for working on a demonstration of the platform’s technological weaknesses.

He later attended Indiana University and then the California Institute of Technology, where he received a doctorate in computation and neural system in 2014.

Since 2016, Griffith has worked for the Ethereum Foundation, a non-profit platform for money and new kinds of applications. Griffith now lives in Singapore.

Griffith, who once appeared on the CBS gameshow “King of the Nerds” in 2013, has achieved a unique reputation in the online community. In the 2008 Times profile, Griffith was described as “a superhero of online anarchy.” His arrest has been covered by both national and international media outlets, which has caused an outpouring of support from many in the tech field.

Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, took to Twitter Sunday to defend his colleague in a series of tweets.

“I refuse to take the convenient path of throwing Virgil under the bus, because I firmly believe that that would be wrong,” Buterin wrote.

“This is an attack on all of us,” tweeted 2600 Magazine, a quarterly magazine where Griffith contributes articles. “Virgil is a friend, a 2600 writer, a HOPE speaker, & a true hacker who has always stood up for freedom & democratic ideals.”

Griffith’s attorney, Brian Klein, posted a message on Twitter Monday saying that Griffith would be released from jail pending a trial.

“We dispute the untested allegations in the criminal complaint, and Virgil looks forward to his day in court, when the full story can come out,” Klein wrote.

The case is being handled by the U.S. Attorney Office’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Kimberly Ravener, Michael K. Krouse, and Kyle A. Wirshba are in charge of the case, with assistance from Trial Attorneys Christian Ford and Matthew J. McKenzie of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.


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