Ethereum Foundation Researcher Arrested For Attending A Crypto-Conference In North Korea

News, Opinion | December 5, 2019 By:

On Thanksgiving, November 28, the Ethereum Foundation member and researcher Virgil Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles Airport for travelling to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The U.S. authorities have charged him of providing crucial information to the Korean government to evade economic sanctions via cryptocurrencies.

The conference that Griffith attended was called the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference held in April this year. According to the authorities and other sources, the conference discussed the possibility of creating DPRK’s own cryptocurrency that could effectively alleviate the sanctions’ economic pressure.

North Korea is famous for its total disconnection from the outer world. But that’s not the reason why almost every other country is posing sanctions against it. The country is, by every stretch of the imagination, a totalitarian state: people are oppressed at the deepest level possible – no freedom of speech or any kind of expression, no internet, no international travel; the government is threatening the world with its crude nuclear weapons and military force… It really is a belligerent state opposed to the whole world.

Controversial projects of the past

When it comes to Virgil Griffith, this is not the first case of him being controversial. The New York Times has dubbed him a “troublemaker” back in 2008. It was about his invention called WikiScanner that could link anonymous edits to Wikipedia’s pages to the companies and groups that made them in the first place. WikiScanner seems to be a beginning for his rather sketchy career as a tech scientist.

The Ethereum Foundation was established in 2014 by Vitalik Buterin who’s been friends with Griffith for a year by that time. Buterin offered him to participate in this project and while Griffith agreed to assist in any way he could, he declined the official membership. However, in 2016, he still took the job as a head of special projects.

The controversy around Griffith is abounding after that point. Even his decision to join the Ethereum Foundation was caused by his expulsion from the Tor community. Tor is an anonymous browser where users can hide their identities and surf the web freely. And Griffith contacted Interpol and Singapore’s authorities with the plan to sell them the users’ IP addresses, timestamps, and other private data.

Then there are his beliefs about Ethereum and the whole cryptocurrency industry. The idea behind blockchain-based currencies is that they’re decentralized and completely free of government intervention. However, Griffith believes that governments can do a lot more to perfect this technology. Some of his most “edgy” ideas include nonprofit governmental funding and nationalization of cryptocurrencies.

And when it comes to travelling to the controversial political environments, North Korea isn’t the only place for Griffith. In 2017, he met with Vladimir Putin and the result of this encounter was Petro, Venezuela’s own cryptocurrency with Russia’s support. 

Twitter battle

Griffith’s arrest on Thanksgiving turned a switch to a raging debate whether his actions were heroic, foolish, or outright treacherous. Despite not knowing what exactly happened at this conference in DPRK – some argue it didn’t even touch the issue of sanction evasion, while others claim the conference gave rise to DPRK’s own cryptocurrency – Griffith’s opposition and fanbase are already engaged in a Twitter battle.

On the one hand, his supporters push the idea of tech scientists being oppressed by the government. Even Buterin himself tweeted that the U.S. authorities are chasing programmers who are just delivering speeches based on publicly-accessible information. They all believe that Griffith was striving towards making ordinary Korean’s lives better and not enforcing their totalitarian government.

On the other hand, however, there are many users who oppose Griffith’s recent trip, saying some matters concern national security and diplomacy and cannot be dealt on a private level. That’s certainly the idea the U.S. officials are backing. 

As for Griffith’s attorney, Brian Klein, he claims that the public doesn’t know the full story about his defendant’s trip and he looks forward to his day in court. They’re planning on disputing the “untested” allegations in the criminal complaint.

Griffith himself was very eager to travel to North Korea. What’s more, he backed the idea of shipping crypto-equipments to the totalitarian country in 2018. He even tweeted that North Korea had an opportunity to open its market and use cryptocurrency exchanges.

All things considered, his case is very complex and is certainly going to bring in a new insight into the government-cryptocurrency relationship. On the one hand, it might lead to a realization from the government’s part that while North Korea is a belligerent state, its citizens might still use cryptocurrencies to satisfy their most basic needs. On the other hand, though, the tech community might have to acknowledge the boundaries and threats that cryptocurrency might pose if it’s used by aggressive states such as DPRK.