Former Ethereum employee jailed for talking at North Korea crypto conference about dodging sanctions

Government building in Kim Il-sung square, Pyongan Province.
(Image credit: Eric Lafforgue & Art in All of Us via Getty)

Virgil Griffith, a former employee of the Ethereum Foundation, has been sentenced to more than five years in prison and fined $100,000, after pleading guilty to conspiring to violate US law: specifically, the US International Emergency Economic Powers Act (thanks, BBC). The 39 year-old was accused of having "participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money" with the North Korean authorities, per the charge sheet, and had he not cut a plea deal could have faced up to 20 years inside and $1 million in fines.

Griffith had travelled to North Korea's capital city Pyongyang in April 2019 to give a presentation on blockchain tech at a crypto conference—despite applying for and being denied permission by the US State Department to attend. Prosecutors said that Griffith understood how crypto could be used to evade US sanctions on North Korea, showed photographs of the talk including a whiteboard with 'no sanctions' written on it, and quoted parts of Griffith's presentation:

"The most important feature of blockchains is that they are open. And the DPRK can't be kept out no matter what the USA or the UN says."

The Ethereum Foundation said it did not approve of or support Griffith's visit to Pyongyang. What exactly the Ethereum Foundation does is a bit of a knotty one: it's a Swiss non-profit organisation dedicated to the underlying Ethereum tech, founded by the same people, which "promotes and manages Ethereum." So it doesn't 'own' Ethereum but is inextricable from it.

Seven months after the conference, Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport.

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Ethereum co-founder Vitali Buterin spoke-out several times against Griffith's prosecution, even while acknowledging that going to Pyongyang was a pretty bad idea: "It was Virgil's personal trip, that many counselled against." In a pre-sentencing letter to the judge Buterin extolled the positive impact Griffith had on his own life and crucial aspects of the Ethereum tech. Buterin also detailed Griffith's curiosity about different cultures, though it was left to Griffith's lawyer to call the Pyongyang trip "the culmination of Virgil’s unique and unfortunate curiosity and obsession with North Korea."

"I became obsessed with seeing the country before it fell," Griffith wrote to the judge in a pre-sentencing letter. "Akin to someone offered the chance to see East Berlin in its final days before the Wall came down."

There's some support for Griffith on the crypto side, unsurprisingly, with the thinking being that this is a heavy-handed pursuit of a blockchain evangelist for giving a talk full of information that's already public. At the same time, Griffith was warned not to go, did so anyway, and then openly talked to the US authorities about it after returning. While sentencing, the judge said of Griffith: "This guy is willing to play both sides of the street as long as he is the centre of attention."

Griffith has a notable career in tech: outside of his involvement with crypto, he was the creator of Wikiscanner, a tool that discovers embarrassing Wikipedia edits by prominent organisations. He also appeared on a reality TV show called King of the Nerds. His personal website no longer exists outside the Wayback Machine, though did once detail his personal commitment to "expose corruption [and] curb abuses of power."

US Attorney Damian Williams played to type, saying in a statement that "justice has been served."

Rich Stanton

Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."