Freedom Fighter or Fool? Jury's Out on Arrested Ethereum Developer Virgil Griffith

The case offers a litmus test of sorts: Was Griffith's appearance in North Korea a brazen violation of economic sanctions or a noble act of spreading ethereum's gospel of global reinvention?

AccessTimeIconDec 3, 2019 at 8:15 p.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 11:45 a.m. UTC
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Did Virgil Griffith go too far with the idea of ethereum as a "world computer"?

The Ethereum Foundation researcher was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport on Thanksgiving for traveling to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) earlier this year. Griffith attended the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in April and is accused by U.S. authorities of giving the North Korean regime information on how to use cryptocurrency to evade sanctions. He's expected to be released on bail in the coming weeks.

Griffith’s arrest sparked debate across Crypto Twitter about whether giving a lecture with public information about open-source projects, and potentially suggesting how to use them, constitutes a violation of economic sanctions or an act of admirably spreading ethereum’s gospel of global reinvention.

Across the ethereum community, the jury is still out as to whether Griffith’s choices are heroic, reprehensible or just plain foolish. Some are comparing him to the cypherpunk folk hero Ross Ulbricht, currently serving a life sentence for operating the Silk Road black market. On the other hand, critics like journalist Laura Shin are tweeting that Griffith could only have helped the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. 

In a statement, Griffith's lawyer, Brian Klein of Baker Marquart, said, "We dispute the untested allegations in the criminal complaint. Virgil looks forward to his day in court, when the full story can come out."

Much remains unclear, including what exactly went down at the April conference in Pyongyang. Alejandro Cao de Benós – the Spanish-born DPRK booster who helped organize the conference – told CoinDesk in June that the idea of creating a DPRK cryptocurrency was raised at the event by foreigners who belonged to "organizations related to the top five cryptocurrencies."

However, another attendee, Fabio Pietrosanti, said this week that the conference did not touch the subject of sanctions evasion, or much of anything significant for that matter.

Even before the trip, though, Griffith openly expressed interest in arranging crypto-related equipment shipments to North Korea in 2018, Reuters reported citing anonymous sources. He was also not shy to publicize his travel plans, using Twitter to invite Spankchain advisor and porn star Brenna Sparks to travel with him.

In June, Griffith tweeted there was a “market opportunity” for North Korea to create a cryptocurrency exchange without know-your-customer compliance requirements. The FBI complaint claims Griffith also floated the idea of sending cryptocurrency between DPRK and South Korea, but the transaction never happened. 

‘Special Projects’

Griffith, 36, has long been a contentious yet beloved figure in the broader tech world. He has irresistible dimples and a patient manner when explaining tricky computer-science tradeoffs.  

In 2008 the New York Times described him as a “troublemaker … and a magnet for tech-world groupies.” His initial fame came from creating WikiScanner, a publicly searchable database that linked anonymous Wikipedia edits to the organizations where those edits seemed to originate. He’s since become the center of several controversies related to ethics and computer science.

In 2013, he befriended Vitalik Buterin. Like so many privacy-minded technologists hanging out in certain corners of the internet, they were both young bitcoiners looking to make their mark with this new blockchain technology. Buterin founded the Ethereum Foundation in Switzerland in 2014 to fund the development of the then-nascent cryptocurrency he created.

In an interview in May, Griffith said he offered private feedback but declined to join the project because it felt too ambitious, technically speaking. 

"I've known Vitalik longer than anyone else in the foundation,” Griffith said, describing himself as a mentor. Indeed, some in the ethereum community said they consider him a paternal leader to many project participants.

Griffith said he was one of the first people to see Buterin’s early drafts of the ethereum white paper, when Griffith was still a Ph.D. student at Caltech. Around that same time Buterin was revising the paper, Griffith posted his first tweet about wanting to visit DPRK. 

He finally joined Buterin’s foundation as “head of special projects” in 2016, after he was rebuked by many in the Tor community for contacting the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) and authorities in Singapore. Although Tor browser users seek to anonymize themselves by bouncing traffic across a dizzying mesh of participants, Griffith collected and offered to sell parts of users’ IP addresses, requested onion hostnames, timestamps and HTTP response codes.

Griffith defended this choice by saying he felt ads were crucial to sustaining the Tor project and he hoped to sell “minimized logs” of user activity, an arrangement that he argued still offers more privacy than Google AdSense. 

These days, he appears to have been looking for ways to take ethereum mainstream through other types of government participation, namely nonprofit funding and nationalized blockchain projects. 

"Most of them [special projects] I can't tell you about,” Griffith said during an interview in May about his efforts to promote ethereum in places like Saudi Arabia. “They're kind of moonshots. They have a high upside if they work and low downside if they don't work.”

Griffith was also a co-chair of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA) for corporations. Griffith owns and operates Ethereum Research, a website the entire ethereum community relies on. Several community members have backed up and mirrored the data there since his arrest, in case the site is taken down. 

Following his arrest last week, the Ethereum Foundation released a statement saying Griffith’s trip was a personal vacation taken without any support from the nonprofit. But it wasn't the first time an ethereum leader met with a controversial political figure; Buterin famously met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2017. That meeting, according to Time magazine, led to the genesis of the petro, Venezuela's digital currency project that Russia is supporting.

Neither Buterin nor the foundation was available for further comment by press time. The EEA did not respond to requests for comment, but Griffith’s name is no longer listed as co-chair on the website.

Twitter debates

In defense of his incarcerated friend, Buterin tweeted Sunday that U.S. authorities are needlessly “going after programmers delivering speeches” based on public information. (He did not address the prosecutors' allegation that the State Department denied Griffith permission to travel to North Korea.) ConsenSys engineer Joseph Delong started a petition to have all pending or potential charges against Griffith dropped, using the hashtag #FreeVirgil. 

Some ethereum fans are already comparing Griffith to the late computer legend Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in 2013 after the U.S. government indicted him for illegally publishing academic research. Swartz and Griffith were friends who worked together on the Tor project. However, there are significant differences between these legal cases.

Attorney Zoe Dolan, who represented Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith when he was convicted of “conspiracy to kill Americans” and aiding terrorism, said Griffith’s arrest is a unique case because it may be adjacent to matters of national security and diplomacy.

Even unaffiliated bystanders, like Switzerland-based attorney and Iranian expat Fatemeh Fannizadeh, are tweeting there’s no clear distinction between promoting censorship-resistant technology and supporting non-compliant transactions on some level. 

Preston Byrne, a partner at the law firm Byrne & Storm, said it's a “teachable moment” for the Ethereum Foundation. "Every business has to be alert to a wide array of risks, and that includes risks arising from social media and the out-of-office behavior of senior staff," he said.

Meanwhile, Shin argued censorship inside North Korea is so severe that Griffith’s educational talk could only help the notoriously repressive Kim administration; civilians aren’t even allowed access to the internet. Along those lines, Human Rights Foundation executive Alex Gladstein tweeted “it is terrible for anyone to provide technical training to the Kim regime.”

Most ethereum fans don’t seem to see it that way, however. Entrepreneur Enrico Talin described Griffith as a “man of peace” whose controversial DPRK talk was titled “Blockchain and Peace.” In a blog post supporting Griffith, Talin recounted a conversation where the researcher allegedly described ethereum as a road to peace that the U.S. government “can’t stop.”

Beyond ethereum diehards, even early bitcoin evangelist and bitcoin cash investor Roger Ver tweeted Griffith’s actions were a form of anti-war activism. 

Likewise, the EEA member said he sees this as a case of the “police state” restricting academic collaboration across borders, even though he also acknowledges “none of us are trained diplomats.” He added this arrest might discourage technologists seeking to work with peers in places like Iran or Venezuela.

On the other hand, some community accounts portray Griffith as a rogue diplomat spreading the blockchain revolution.

As such, the anonymous ethereum fan from the EEA said they need to take the “larger movement” more seriously and recruit people with actual experience in politics or lobbying.

This highly publicized arrest may be a “turning point” for ethereum, the EEA member said. 

“As long as it stays in the limelight, the more inclined the prosecution may [be] to make an example out of it," Dolan said of Griffith’s case. “The Southern District of New York has historically been shown to be a leader, across the nation, in departing below the United States sentencing guidelines. But that's not necessarily true in white-collar cases.”

Christine Kim contributed reporting.


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