How U.S. Adversaries Are Using Cryptocurrency to Evade Sanctions

How U.S. Adversaries Are Using Cryptocurrency to Evade Sanctions
A man uses his smartphone in front of portraits of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung, left, and Kim Jong Il, right, in Pyongyang, May 5, 2015 (AP photo by Wong Maye-E).

Before his arrest, Virgil Griffith had a reputation as a “cult hacker,” a “tech-world enfant terrible.” A 2008 profile in The New York Times Magazine, published when he was 25, called him the “Internet Man of Mystery,” and cast him as “a troublemaker … A twerp. And a magnet for tech-world groupies,” drinking White Russians and “revel[ing] in the attention of his female fans.”

Griffith had become notorious the year before, when he launched WikiScanner, a website that used IP address databases to expose the anonymous editors of Wikipedia entries. The site’s release brought on a wave of news coverage, as IPs associated with government agencies, political parties, major multinational corporations and religious institutions, from Pepsi to the CIA to the Church of Scientology, were all implicated. The attention transformed him into a minor celebrity. By 2014, Griffith was still marketing himself as a troublemaker. In a promotional video for the reality show “King of the Nerds,” in which he was a contestant, he describes himself as a “journeyman of the internet dark arts.” “I consider myself a rebel,” he adds, speaking into the camera. “Or at the very least, I play to my own drum.”

Griffith had been living in Singapore and working for a cryptocurrency organization, the Ethereum Foundation, for two years when the U.S. State Department denied him permission to visit North Korea for the Pyongyang Blockchain and Cryptocurrency Conference in April last year. But his rebel attitude meant he went anyway. He was arrested months later when he flew back to the U.S. on Thanksgiving. It was then that the Justice Department revealed that Griffith was facing up to 20 years in prison for violating U.S. sanctions on North Korea, because, according to the FBI, the Alabama-born hacker had “participated in discussions regarding using cryptocurrency technologies to evade sanctions and launder money.”

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review