US says cryp­tocur­rency ex­pert vi­o­lated North Ko­rea sanc­tions

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - NEWS - By Jim Mus­tian and Jen­nifer Peltz

NEW YORK >> Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors have charged a cryp­tocur­rency ex­pert with vi­o­lat­ing eco­nomic sanc­tions against North Ko­rea by pre­sent­ing at a con­fer­ence there this year af­ter the U.S. govern­ment de­nied his re­quest to travel to Py­ongyang.

Vir­gil Grif­fith, 36, was await­ing a fed­eral court ap­pear­ance Fri­day in Los An­ge­les, a day af­ter he was ar­rested at Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Grif­fith is an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen but lives in Sin­ga­pore. Mes­sages were sent to Grif­fith’s de­fense at­tor­ney seek­ing com­ment.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors said Grif­fith se­cured a visa through “a (North Korean) diplo­matic mis­sion fa­cil­ity” in Man­hat­tan for 100 euros and then trav­eled to the coun­try through China in April.

A re­quest for com­ment was sent to North Ko­rea’s United Na­tions mis­sion in New York.

At the con­fer­ence, Grif­fith talked about how North Ko­rea could use cryp­tocur­rency to “achieve in­de­pen­dence from the global bank­ing sys­tem,” ac­cord­ing to a crim­i­nal com­plaint.

The con­fer­ence was at­tended by 100 peo­ple, pros­e­cu­tors said, in­clud­ing sev­eral who ap­peared to work for the North Korean govern­ment.

The crim­i­nal com­plaint says Grif­fith showed the FBI pho­to­graphs of him­self in North Ko­rea and pro­vided agents with pro­pa­ganda from the coun­try. It said Grif­fith planned to fa­cil­i­tate the ex­change of cryp­tocur­rency be­tween North and South Ko­rea and en­cour­aged other U.S. ci­ti­zens to at­tend the same con­fer­ence next year.

“Grif­fith an­nounced his in­ten­tion to re­nounce his U.S. ci­ti­zen­ship and be­gan re­search­ing how to pur­chase ci­ti­zen­ship from other coun­tries,” the U.S. At­tor­ney’s Of­fice in Man­hat­tan said in a news re­lease.

Pros­e­cu­tors say another per­son in­volved in the al­leged con­spir­acy was to be brought to New York and ar­rested. That per­son is not named in the crim­i­nal com­plaint against Grif­fith.

The U.S. at­tor­ney in

Man­hat­tan, Ge­of­frey Ber­man, said Grif­fith “pro­vided highly tech­ni­cal in­for­ma­tion to North Ko­rea, know­ing that this in­for­ma­tion could be used to help North Ko­rea laun­der money and evade sanc­tions.”

Grif­fith has con­trib­uted to the hacker mag­a­zine 2600, which tweeted Fri­day that Grif­fith’s ar­rest amounted to “an at­tack on all of us.”

“I kept warn­ing him it was a trap,” the mag­a­zine’s ed­i­tor, Em­manuel Gold­stein said in a sep­a­rate Twit­ter post, adding Grif­fith “in­sisted on” speak­ing to the FBI with­out a lawyer. “What’s ironic is that af­ter­wards, he was con­vinced they to­tally got where he was com­ing from.”

The U.S. and the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil have im­posed in­creas­ingly tight sanc­tions on North Ko­rea in re­cent years to try to rein in its nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­grams. Py­ongyang says it wants the U.S. to get the sanc­tions lifted and pro­vide se­cu­rity guar­an­tees be­fore North Ko­rea will aban­don its ad­vanc­ing nu­clear arse­nal; the U.S. has said the North has to take sub­stan­tial steps to­ward de­nu­cle­ariza­tion be­fore the sanc­tions will come off.

The U.S. govern­ment amended sanc­tions against North Ko­rea in 2018 to pro­hibit “a U.S. per­son, wher­ever lo­cated” from ex­port­ing tech­nol­ogy to North Ko­rea. Pros­e­cu­tors said Grif­fith ac­knowl­edged that his pre­sen­ta­tion amounted to a trans­fer of tech­ni­cal knowl­edge to con­fer­ence at­ten­dees.

A self-de­scribed for­mer hacker who went on to get a doc­tor­ate in com­puter science, Grif­fith be­came some­thing of a tech-world en­fant ter­ri­ble in the early 2000s. He told The New York Times in 2008 that he con­sid­ered him­self a “dis­rup­tive tech­nol­o­gist.”

In 2007, he cre­ated Wik­iS­can­ner, a tool that aimed to un­mask peo­ple who anony­mously edited en­tries in Wikipedia, the crowd­sourced on­line en­cy­clo­pe­dia. Wik­iS­can­ner es­sen­tially could de­ter­mine the busi­ness, in­sti­tu­tions or govern­ment agen­cies that owned the com­put­ers from which some ed­its were made.

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