/Prosecutors: Noted American coder taught North Korea how to evade sanctions with cryptocurrency

Prosecutors: Noted American coder taught North Korea how to evade sanctions with cryptocurrency

A U.S. programmer known as “Romanpoet” has been criminally charged for traveling to North Korea to teach cryptocurrency and blockchain technology to evade economic sanctions, the Department of Justice announced Friday.

Virgil Griffith, the 36-year-old creator of WikiScanner, a publicly searchable database that traced the origins of anonymous Wikipedia edits, is charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The act prohibits citizens from exporting goods, services or technology to North Korea without approval from the Treasury Department.

In April of this year, Griffith gave a presentation called “Blockchain and Peace” at the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference, despite that fact that the State Department had denied him permission to travel to North Korea, according to the federal complaint.

In a May interview with authorities in Manhattan, Griffith admitted that he had purchased a visa through the North Korean diplomatic mission for 100 euros. He received the visa on a piece of paper separate from his passport to avoid evidence of his trip and traveled to North Korea through China.

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“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,” Geoffrey S. Berman, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement.

Griffith was also planning to facilitate the exchange of cryptocurrency between North and South Korea, the complaint says. He encouraged other U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea, intended to renounce his U.S. citizenship and began researching how to purchase citizenship from other countries, the complaint says.

Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Griffith is a U.S. citizen who has been residing in Singapore, according to federal prosecutors. He received a doctorate in computational and neural systems at the California Institute of Technology and studied computer and cognitive science at the University of Alabama. He has spoken at various hacker conferences.

In a profile in the New York Times Magazine in 2008, writer Virginia Heffernan referred to Griffith as a “troublemaker,” “twerp” and “magnet for tech-world groupies.”

According to the complaint, Griffith was employed by an organization that functions as an open-source platform for the development of blockchain and cryptocurrency.

Griffith was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport Thursday and was expected to appear in federal court Friday.

He faces up to 20 years in prison.