Renowned hacker and Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith was arrested by the US government on Friday after speaking at an April conference on blockchain technologies in North Korea. The US government sees its presentation as a technology transfer – and thus as a violation of US sanctions.
But Griffith's defense lawyer, including Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, describes the arrest as a massive overreaction. Griffith worked for the Ethereum Foundation, and her mother called him a friend.
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"I do not think Virgil really helped the DPRK [Democratic People̵
The prosecution, however, argues that Griffith, a US citizen resident in Singapore, knew that his trip violated US sanctions laws. He is said to have obtained permission to travel to the State Department, and his request was denied. Nevertheless, Griffith made the trip and traveled through China to avoid US travel restrictions.
In a dues document, an FBI agent said Griffith "discussed how the DPRK uses blockchain and cryptocurrency technology to launder money and sanction money, and how the DPRK can leverage these technologies to become independent of the global banking system."  Griffith undertook little to hide his travel plans. He tweeted a photo of his travel documents and volunteered to speak with the FBI after his trip. He even allowed the authorities to inspect his cell phone.
The Feds say Griffith's electronic communications show a clear intention to violate US sanctions laws. When a friend asked why the North Korean regime was interested in cryptocurrency, he wrote: "Presumably avoid sanctions … who knows."
Later he told a friend about his plan to send 1 unit of cryptocurrency (presumably ether) between South and North Korea. The friend asked, "Does not that violate the sanctions?" Griffith replied, "It is," the US government said.
"Small PR Catastrophes"
Griffith was a well-known figure in the hacking world for more than a decade prior to this year's trip to North Korea. He was featured on The New York Times in a 2008 article focused on developing WikiScanner, a software that helped uncover individuals and organizations making secret changes to Wikipedia ,
He reported Times that he aims at "creating smaller public relations disasters for businesses and organizations that I do not like." A 2006 article demonstrated how easy it was to guess mothers' nickname from people in public records – and highlighted the disadvantage of using this information to authenticate consumers.
According to his LinkedIn page, Griffith received a PhD in computer and neuronal systems in 2014. Since then, he has been involved in a variety of cryptocurrency projects. Since 2016 he is a researcher at the Ethereum Foundation.
This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.
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