US Arrests Ethereum Developer for Training North Koreans to Evade Sanctions

After attending a blockchain conference in North Korea in April, a developer at the Ethereum Foundation has been arrested in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day.

AccessTimeIconNov 29, 2019 at 10:00 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 11:45 a.m. UTC

Ethereum Foundation staffer Virgil Griffith has been arrested for allegedly going to a conference in North Korea and sharing his expertise in using cryptocurrency.

The United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York announced Friday that Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Thanksgiving Day.

“Despite receiving warnings not to go, Griffith allegedly traveled to one of the United States’ foremost adversaries, North Korea, where he taught his audience how to use blockchain technology to evade sanctions," John Demers, an assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.

The complaint specifically cites violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The announcement said that Griffith should appear in a court in Los Angeles today.

In April, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), also known as North Korea, held the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference. According to a complaint brought against Griffith, he sought approval to attend the conference which was denied. He then traveled to the conference without permission, allegedly by way of China.

The complaint against Griffith was authored by a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation named Brandon M. Cavanaugh. He notes that on May 22, 2019, the two participated in what Cavanaugh calls a "consensual interview."

The complaint asserts, "At the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, GRIFFITH and other attendees discussed how blockchain and cryptocurrency technology could be used by the DPRK to launder money and evade sanctions, and how the DPRK could use these technologies to achieve independence from the global banking system."

The affidavit does not name any specific cryptocurrency, only asserting Griffith had expertise in what it refers to as "cryptocurrency-1." It alleges that "after the DPRK Cryptocurrency Conference, Griffith began formulating plans to facilitate the exchange of Cryptocurrency-1 between DPRK and South Korea."

As part of the interview, Griffith showed the agent photos and documents from the gathering and said he would like to return to the conference when it happens again in 2020.

According to his LinkedIn page, he has worked for the Ethereum Foundation since October 2016. As previously reported, he has served as its head of special projects. Subsequent to publication, the foundation sent a statement to CoinDesk that noted it is aware of and following the situation, writing:

"We can confirm that the Foundation was not represented in any capacity at the events outlined in the Justice Department’s filing, and that the Foundation neither approved nor supported any such travel, which was a personal matter."

Griffith's attorney was not immediately reachable.

The complaint alleges that Griffith was interested in seeking citizenship in another jurisdiction. His LinkedIn page currently shows him primarily residing in Singapore. Recently, he has been working to certify ethereum as compliant with Islamic law.

The case is being handled by the Southern District's Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit, with assistance from the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section.

"Because this Affidavit is being submitted for the limited purpose of demonstrating probable cause, it does not include all the facts that I have learned during the course of my investigation," Cavanaugh wrote.

Update (Nov. 30, 22:47 UTC): This post has been updated with a statement from the Ethereum Foundation.


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