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Ethereum developer arrested for allegedly helping North Korea break sanctions with blockchain


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The arrest has proven controversial and given rise to multiple viewpoints.

The US Justice Department has arrested Ethereum developer Virgil Griffith for allegedly helping North Korea violate international sanctions with blockchain, it announced.

US Attorney Geoffrey Berman said: "As alleged, Virgil Griffith provided highly technical information to North Korea, knowing that this information could be used to help North Korea launder money and evade sanctions. In allegedly doing so, Griffith jeopardized the sanctions that both Congress and the president have enacted to place maximum pressure on North Korea’s dangerous regime."

In response, the Ethereum Foundation has stated that it was not involved in or represented in any official capacity by Griffith's trip, Vitalik Buterin has spoken out in support of Griffith, and a Free Virgil Griffith petition is in the works.

According to the Justice Department, the nature of Griffith's trip included giving a presentation titled "Blockchain and Peace".

Griffith also reportedly exchanged a message with an associate, in which he described sending cryptocurrency between North and South Korea and acknowledged that he knew it constituted evading sanctions.

When Griffith previously sought permission for this trip from the federal government, he was refused.

Two sides of the issue

The arrest has divided opinions.

Supporters are pointing out that everything in Virgil's presentation would have been public knowledge. The "highly technical information" that the Justice Department says he provided North Korea is nothing you can't find by Googling.

It's also public knowledge that North Korea already knows how to use cryptocurrency to evade sanctions. The country has been hacking exchanges, laundering money and pulling its own ICO exit scams for years now.

As his supporters are saying, it is extremely unlikely that Griffith actually helped North Korea evade sanctions in any practical way, which calls the nature of the allegations into question and raises a number of troubling ethical issues and questions around why a US citizen's right to free speech would end where blockchain begins.

On the other hand, Griffith's detractors argue that he admitted to knowingly breaking the law, he was specifically refused permission to make the trip and that the law is the law. Detractors further allege that Griffith has a history of harvesting people's private data and that he has previously tried to sell some of this data to Interpol, which clouds some of the more ideologically-oriented defences of his behaviour.

At press time, there are remaining, unresolved, concerns about how Dennis Rodman's basketball pointers may have helped Kim Jong-un lob wads of cash across the DMZ.

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Disclosure: The author holds BNB and BTC at the time of writing.

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