American programmer and developer Virgil Griffith pleaded guilty today to violating U.S. sanctions law. Griffith created Wikipedia indexing tool WikiScanner, co-designed the Tor2web proxy, and was a senior research scientist with the Ethereum Foundation who at one point led special projects for the platform.
The North Korean Crypto Conference
A federal grand jury convened by the U.S. Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York alleged that Griffith conspired to allege the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Griffith was set to go on trial today, but instead changed his plea to guilty to the lone charge. Prior to shifting his plea, he was facing up to 20 years in prison.
He will be sentenced in January 2022, and reports state that the plea deal could conclude with somewhere between 63 and 78 months of prison time. The maximum sentence even with the plea deal, however, is still north of 6 years.
Griffith was arrested in November 2019 after allegedly speaking on blockchain and cryptocurrency in North Korea earlier that year. The U.S. Attorney’s office alleged that during that talk, he “provided highly technical information” that he knew “could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions.” The event was a “Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference” in April 2019, according to the Department of Justice press release.
Griffith was released on bail last year, however he was jailed after attempting to access his Coinbase account to pay attorneys this year. Prosecutors stated that this move was a violation of the terms of his bail conditions.
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International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA)
Despite not residing in the U.S., Griffith was a U.S. citizen and thus subject to the IEEPA charges. Journalist and author Ethan Lou, who was with Virgil Griffith in North Korea, was at the courthouse today and tweeted developments. As Lou aptly notes, since Griffith only faced “conspiracy to violate” the IEEPA and that actually helping North Korea was not vital to find him guilty. Accordingly, says Lou, “the prosecution does not need to prove any tangible results of any specific action.”
The IEEPA states that U.S. persons are “prohibited from exporting any goods, services, or technology to the DPRK without a license”. The bar to find Griffith guilty was undoubtedly quite low.
Following Griffith’s plea shift, Lou noted that he was “quite emotional” and that it was “unclear what new development caused this guilty plea,” adding that “one possible reason is the barring of the remote testimony of an Ethereum Foundation lawyer.”
The two-year back and forth between the U.S. Attorney’s office and Virgil’s representatives finally comes to a close.
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