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- Virgil Griffith, a programmer who worked on the cryptocurrency Ethereum, was arrested on Friday after federal prosecutors claimed he gave a talk at a blockchain and crypto conference in Pyongyang, North Korea.
- The Ethereum community leaped to Griffith’s defence, arguing that any information he handed over was already in the public domain.
- But East Asian cybersecurity expert Priscilla Moriuchi said the presence of a US cryptocurrency expert would have been valuable to North Korea. “Any interaction with a daily developer and user of cryptocurrency is likely to be valuable to North Koreans,” she said.
- Griffith has been released from prison and is awaiting trial. His lawyer described the allegations as “untested.”
- The North Korean regime brutally oversees a starving populace, and is thought to be hoarding stolen cryptocurrency to fund the development of nuclear weapons.
It turns out visiting the rogue state of North Korea as an American citizen and giving it any sort of technical advice is probably a bad idea.
Cryptocurrency expert Virgil Griffith was arrested on Friday for allegedly doing exactly that, with federal prosecutors saying that Griffith spoke at a blockchain and cryptocurrency conference in Pyongyang, North Korea.
In a statement announcing his arrest, the US Department of Justice said Griffith’s talk had described how North Korea could “launder money and evade sanctions.” A judge has since ruled that Griffith be released from jail pending trial, and Griffith’s lawyer Brian Klein described the allegations as “untested.”
Griffith worked on the cryptocurrency Ethereum, and the crypto community leaped to his defence. A common argument was that anything Griffith might have told the North Koreans was already in the public domain.
But one expert has shot down that argument, and suggested any such visit would be a pretty terrible idea.
Priscilla Moriuchi was formerly an East Asia cybersecurity expert for the NSA and current director at cybersecurity firm Recorded Future.
She told Business Insider that Griffith’s alleged presence at the April conference is likely to have “been valuable” to the rogue state.
“It is clear from the indictment that Griffith was not arrested simply for attending the conference, but as a result of a long chain of events both before and after that conference,” she said.
The US complaint states that Griffith avoided putting his North Korea travel visa in his US passport, knowing it was illegal for him to speak at a conference in North Korea.
She added: “I think what people are missing when they discuss cryptocurrency in the DPRK [North Korea] context is that any interaction with a daily developer and user of cryptocurrency is likely to be valuable to North Koreans.
She continued: “Most North Koreans, even relatively high-ranking government officials, do not have regular and unimpeded access to the global internet and it is therefore more difficult for them to gain access to knowledge about cryptocurrency that others might find basic or common.”
North Korea, nicknamed the hermit kingdom, is highly secretive so it isn’t clear what technologies its citizens can access. The country does have some internet access, has created its own operating system, and also has a mobile network, but whatever its citizens can access will be highly limited.
“Even the ability to ask questions to an expert in person could be valuable for the North Koreans.”
Moriuchi’s comments come despite several some in the cryptocurrency community leaping to Griffith’s defence – most notably Vitalik Buterin, cofounder of Ethereum.
In a Twitter thread posted Sunday, Buterin wrote: “I hope USA shows strength rather than weakness and focuses on genuine and harmful corruption,” rather than “going after programmers delivering speeches parroting public information.”
Though Moriuchi said “I cannot speak to what Buterin does or does not know” when asked about his tweets, she questioned his defence of Griffith’s presence in Pyongyang.
“It can be relatively easy to trivialize both the problem of DPRK use of cryptocurrencies and the threat it poses to the world,” she said.
Buterin had argued on that Griffith hadn’t helped North Korea “in doing anything bad”, and said he hadn’t given “advanced tutoring.”
Critics pointed out to Buterin that Griffith was, perhaps, unintentionally helping a regime which brutally oversees a starved populace, and throws large numbers of its citizens into concentration camps. Buterin later acknowledged North Korea’s human rights violations.
Moriuchi added: “The current sanctions regime has focused on limiting traditional DPRK revenue generating activities, such as the sale of commodities and manufactured goods, but has lagged behind in addressing digital means of revenue generation.
“The amount of money the DPRK could be earning from these operations is unknown, and likely higher than we assess because we do not know the full extent of their cryptocurrency schemes. This money, like all other illicit revenue generation, likely goes to fund the [ruling] Kim family, their ballistic missile program, and the DPRK military.”
As Moriuchi herself noted, a leaked UN report, reported by Reuters in August, said North Korean hackers stole $2 billion from banks and cryptocurrencies at leader Kim Jong-un’s behest in order to fund the development of nuclear weapons.