A widely known computer hacker and cryptocurrency expert from Alabama with ties to the Port City is facing federal charges for allegedly helping North Korea find ways to evade U.S. economic sanctions.
Virgil Griffith, 36, was arrested by federal agents on Nov. 28 at the Los Angeles International Airport as he was returning to the U.S. for Thanksgiving. He was charged with violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) for allegedly traveling to North Korea to give a presentation on cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies that could help the regime to evade U.S. sanctions.
“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,” Geoffrey S. Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement announcing Griffith’s arrest last week. “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.”
Cryptocurrencies, which are decentralized currencies that can be traded digitally, have exploded since the popularity and value of Bitcoin began to grow a few years ago. However, there are several other cryptocurrencies today, including one Griffith was instrumental in developing called Ether.
Ether is the currency created to incentivize the use of the Ethereum network — an online platform for creating decentralized applications Griffith worked for prior to his arrest. Supporters and friends have defended Griffith since his arrest, arguing he simply gave a presentation about Ethereum as he has at similar conferences around the world. However, U.S. officials say he jeopardized national security.
Aside from his work with Ethereum, Griffith is one of the more famous self-proclaimed “computer hackers” in the country because of his appearance on the former TBS show “King of the Nerds” — a reality show that pits contestants from various backgrounds against one another in head-to-head competition.
A popular recurring guest, Griffith appeared on the program for multiple seasons and billed himself as “a rebel” and “a journeyman of the internet dark arts.” While Griffith’s computer skills have led to some legal problems in the past, his current criminal charges are by far the most significant he’s faced.
According to the prosecutors, Griffith traveled to North Korea for the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in April despite the government previously denying his request to travel there. They also claim he knew presenting on cryptocurrency there would violate U.S. sanctions.
The government alleges during his speech, Griffith provided information on how North Korea could use cryptocurrency to “achieve independence from the global banking system” and allegedly planned “to facilitate [an] exchange” of digital currency with South Korea.
According to the FBI, Griffith maintained the information he presented was basic and could be found online. However, they also claim, in an interview with the FBI earlier this year, he was able to identify several attendees from his presentation who appeared to work for the North Korean government with whom he discussed the “technical aspects of those technologies.”
Griffith is accused of conspiring with the communist regime since at least August 2018 and, according to the FBI, he had previously announced his intention to renounce his U.S. citizenship and was researching how to purchase citizenship from other countries. He has been living in Singapore for the past few years.
If convicted on the IEEPA violation, Griffith could face up to 20 years in prison.
Though Griffith has yet to make a statement since his arrest, various posts to his verified Facebook account do show at the very least some interest in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. One post shows a ₩5,000 North Korean won note with the caption, “DPRK money.” Another shows a postcard Griffith appears to have been sent from someone named Annabelle in North Korea’s capital, Pyongyang.
“Dear Comrade Virgil, I am in the DPRK and things here are glorious — the people are so friendly, the buildings are monumentally larger than life, and the country is beautifully organized. I understand and love Pyongyang,” it reads. “Btw, death to the imperialist America.”
A judge released Griffith on an $800,000 bond Dec. 2, though he is required to wear a location-monitoring device and has been ordered to undergo mental health treatment as part of his release conditions. His attorney, Brian Klein, is billed as one of the leading cryptocurrency trial attorneys in the U.S.
“We dispute the untested allegations in the criminal complaint,” Klein told Lagniappe in an emailed statement. “Virgil looks forward to his day in court, when the full story can come out.”
While Griffith might be a long way removed from his Alabama roots, he still has family here. Originally from Northport, Griffith’s father, Robert Griffith, is a founding member of Alabama Dermatology Associates along with former Gov. Robert Bentley. He graduated high school from the Alabama School of Math and Science (ASMS) in Mobile in 2002 before moving back home to attend The University of Alabama.
Officials from ASMS declined to discuss Griffith’s time at the school but said he left in good standing.
In Tuscaloosa, however, Griffith and another classmate were part of a lawsuit brought by the Blackboard company after they allegedly found and exploited flaws the program used to administer campus ID cards at Alabama and several other universities and colleges throughout the U.S.
The pair had planned to present their findings at a hacking conference in Atlanta back in 2003, but Blackboard intervened with a restraining order before filing a lawsuit against the pair. It was eventually settled out of court, though the terms of the settlement were never revealed publicly by either party.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).