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OK: Giving a Talk on Cryptocurrency. Not OK: Giving It in N. Korea

Computer scientist Virgil Griffith arrested in LA, accused of helping Pyongyang evade sanctions
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 3, 2019 7:53 AM CST
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Stock photo of bitcoins.   (Getty Images/Jirapong Manustrong)

(Newser) – His seminar was entitled "Blockchain and Peace," but US authorities didn't find anything peaceful about it. Now Virgil Griffith, a 36-year-old described by the Los Angeles Times as a "rabble-rousing computer scientist," has been arrested, taken into custody at LAX on Thursday by FBI agents after being accused of helping North Korea evade US sanctions. Per a criminal complaint, Griffith, who works at the Ethereum Foundation, allegedly traveled to Pyongyang "in or about" April to attend a cryptocurrency conference; he was denied permission to go there by the State Department due to US sanctions against North Korea, but Griffith snuck in anyway, via China, the complaint alleges. While at the conference, Griffith is said to have given a presentation on cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum, as well as on blockchain, the tech underlying these types of systems.

However, prosecutors say Griffith took direction from a conference organizer to gear remarks on how cryptocurrency could be used to launder money and get around sanctions. Per Business Insider, UN experts have warned that North Korean hackers are known for swiping cryptocurrency to funnel to state activities; the feds say Griffith's e-communications suggest he had an awareness that North Korea may use cryptocurrency to circumvent sanctions, Ars Technica reports. An ethereum co-founder took to Twitter on Sunday to back up his colleague, noting Griffith didn't offer any information not available online. Prosecutors have charged Griffith with conspiring to violate the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which could bring him 20 years in prison. Per the Times, Griffith was released on an $800,000 bond, though CoinDesk notes that could take "a few weeks." (Read more cryptocurrency stories.)

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