Is Virgil Griffith a folk hero, a criminal, or just a techie wrongly accused? Here’s what we know
Is cryptocurrency enthusiast Virgil Griffith a friendly unofficial liaison to North Korea à la Dennis Rodman, or is he a criminal helping North Korea evade United States sanctions?
The 36-year-old cryptocurrency developer, whose life story reads like the screenplay to a thriller, has been making headlines since his arrest on Thanksgiving — purportedly for giving a talk to North Koreans on how to launder money via cryptocurrency. Yet it is unclear still whether Griffith is some kind of anti-imperialist folk hero, a traitor to his country, or just a hapless techie caught up in something way bigger than himself.
Here’s what we know: On November 28, Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport. It is unclear why he was in Los Angeles; as an American living in Singapore, he could have been traveling for the holidays to the United States. Formally, he was arrested because of a trip he made to North Korea in April 2019.
According to a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Justice Department in the Southern District of New York, Griffith spoke at a conference called the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) last April. During the presentation, he supposedly described how blockchain and cryptocurrency technology could be used by the DPRK to launder money.
Cryptocurrencies are electronic currencies that can be digitally traded. The most well-known is Bitcoin, though there are literally thousands of others of various trading volumes and structure. All cryptocurrencies are decentralized, and are not controlled by any government, though governments occasionally issue their own coins. The U.S. federal government says Griffith’s presentation in North Korea constituted a transfer of technology, which violates the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and Executive Order 13466, which says Americans can’t export any goods, services, or technology to the DPRK without a license from the Department of the Treasury, Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).
Griffith is currently sitting in jail, and will be held until bail is posted, according to a statement by his lawyer given to cryptocurrency news site CoinDesk. Griffith’s defenders believe the arrest was an overreaction. He now faces up to 20 years in prison.
Who is Virgil Griffith?
Griffith is a programmer who first gained notoriety in the hacker community for creating WikiScanner, a public database that existed between 2002 and 2007. WikiScanner linked anonymous edits on Wikipedia to the organizations where those edits originated, using the public IP addresses that are logged by Wikipedia. Griffith said he created the tool with the intent of “creat[ing] minor public relations disasters for companies and organizations I dislike.” The tool produced a trove of insight into how corporations spread misinformation and propaganda amid PR disasters, and famously revealed how corporations like Exxon would spin oil rig disasters on their respective Wikipedia pages. It also helped citizen journalists observe whitewashing of Wikipedia pages by big corporations. In 2008, the New York Times called Griffith an “Internet Man of Mystery” in a profile piece.
Prior to his arrest last week, Griffith had other run-ins with the law. In 2003, the educational software maker Blackboard sued to prevent him from presenting research on security flaws in the company’s software.
In 2014, Griffith received a Ph.D. in computation and neural systems, which is when he moved to Silicon Valley, according to his LinkedIn page. Since October 2016, he has worked as a research scientist for Ethereum, a blockchain-based cryptocurrency.
What is Ethereum?
Ethereum is a blockchain-based cryptocurrency and a decentralized computing platform. While it is often associated with Bitcoin, there are substantial differences. First, Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer digital cash system that enables online Bitcoin payments. Ethereum is a ledger technology that enables companies and organizations to build other cryptocurrencies, or tokens, using the same protocol as Ether, the cryptocurrency made by the Ethereum platform, which can be distributed on different blockchains. Most recently, China’s internet firewall, which is used by the government to regulate access to foreign internet sites, blocked an Ethereum block explorer website, according to Coindesk.
What did Griffith talk about at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference?