TL;DR: Ethereum Foundation’s Virgil Griffith (79038-112) is being held at the Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, in the Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles, on 535 Alameda St, awaiting arraignment. He was recently arrested in connection with violating United States law regarding a trip to North Korea for the express purpose of sharing information to help the country evade economic sanctions. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison. Facts of the case are still fresh, and mostly from law enforcement sources. However, it is possible to learn from what is known in order to make better decisions about crypto advocacy.
Before You Take That Trip to North Korea
Summer of this year, CoinSpice spoke with New York University professor Finn Brunton about his book published by Princeton University Press, Digital Cash: The Unknown History of the Anarchists, Utopians, and Technologists Who Created Cryptocurrency. We shared, as it turns out, a love for early hacking culture.
I refuse to take the convenient path of throwing Virgil under the bus, because I firmly believe that that would be wrong. I'm signing. Reasoning below.https://t.co/E44p5caeJO
— vitalik.eth (@VitalikButerin) December 1, 2019
Back then, especially in the 1980s and 90s, hacking was a full-blown philosophy, a way of looking at the world. What is the go of things? That question guided nearly every hacker’s actions. How does this work? Why can I not walk there? Why do you say X or Y is impossible? How do you know? It’s almost an endless regress of inquiry in the purest sense. Nothing was off-limits, from using toy cereal box whistle noises to mimic dial-up tones … to social engineering a secretary for exclusive skyscraper office access.
The basic foundation was knowledge is good, positive, wonderful, and should be shared, open, encouraged as ends to themselves. It’s a radical way to live because it is an affront to gatekeepers, to those who claim the right to forbid knowledge from traveling. Rationales for secrets range from plausible (probably not a great idea to give everyone access to your financial information) to hysterical (nuclear weapons), but hackers simply want to know, learn, and share.
Internet Man of Mystery
That philosophy is also the undergirding of open source communities. Newer folks to crypto are especially taken aback by how much knowledge is given away for free, including entire codebases. It has allowed a near quarter-trillion industry to emerge with just cryptocurrency alone. It’s easy to take for granted.
It is also what, lingering in the background at least, might have doomed Virgil Griffith. Early accounts of his personality and demeanor describe him as a hacker in the above sense. Anecdotal proof can be found in a late 2008 profile of Griffith for The New York Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan as part of its Medium column titled, “Internet Man of Mystery.”
Virgil Griffith is described as the “it” 20 something, founding WikiScanner, doing research at the “mysterious” Santa Fe Institute, and a “troublemaker” rumored to have once been charged with “sedition.” He grew up in Alabama, and had a hard time with authority most of his life, beginning his intellectual journey by hacking video games as early as 9 years old. He’s quoted as explaining, “I love the ingenuity that goes into trying to think of the most perverse things you can do within the game that the designers would have never intended or foreseen someone trying. You step back and look at the entire interacting, breathing system and pick out the counterintuitive, unbalanced, seldom-explored parts and look for a way for these parts to interact such that they play off each other, synergistically amplifying their power to influence everything else, potentially spiraling out of control.”
Gödel, Escher, Bach
He likes to know the go of things and to affect change. From there, its a steady diet of 2600 Magazine reading, challenging corporate authority, and, of course, being moved by Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach toward grander hacker designs. Griffith told Heffernan, “Hackerdom rewards spontaneity, curiosity and ingenuity. Science rewards rigor and forging solid bedrock to stand on — which means a lot of carefully dotting i’s and crossing t’s. Although scientific questions are harder, more abstract and tend to have less immediate influence in the world, the questions are deeper and the answers so uplifting and transcendently beautiful that contact with them is a genuine spiritual experience.”
That’s important background, albeit a bit dated, to establish Griffith’s thinking about the advent of cryptocurrency and his general disposition. More recently, he gave an interview last year, noting his PhD in Theoretical Neuroscience from Caltech and how he’d been working at the Ethereum Foundation for roughly 2 years. He met Ethereum’s co-founder Vitalk Buterin prior to its existence, advising him against the project (“too ambitious”), and would later travel the world with Buterin as a chief evangelist.
For whatever reason, he went to North Korea for what seems a chance of a lifetime after apparently being warned by US authorities (again, according to official statements). He wasn’t acting on behalf of the Ethereum Foundation, apparently, but his strong ties naturally pin the two together, especially as they relate to smart contracts and accusations Griffith taught the tech as a way around sanctions.
His subsequent arrest has led to a lot of dunking on Griffith by crypto enthusiasts, who all claim to have known better. And, looking back, it does seem he took incredible chances, flagrant ones in line with his public past and general reputation of causing mischief for its own sake.
Since publicizing his plight, CoinSpice received at least two inquiries from those working on crypto advocacy in countries from South America to Africa. Americans trying to bring what they believe to be more economic choice and freedom to some of the most desperate people on the planet are now really, really worried. They should be.
The problem here is falling into the exact trap set by US law enforcement. Be it Silk Road and Ross Ulbricht or now North Korea and Virgil Griffith, authorities are obviously at least trying to slow cryptocurrency adoption. There’s good reason why government agencies have media arms and craft press releases, in other words. They’re trying to send a message.
Without becoming too cynical nor too timid, there’s still plenty crypto advocates can do, even in places like North Korea, without trying to balance looking at a potential 20-year prison sentence. First, however, if a government agency warns you directly to stop, cease in your activities, it’s probably best to heed. Seek out professional legal advice if you’re convinced otherwise, but do not believe yourself to be smarter nor outside their reach. Even dudes with PhDs have been humbled. #FreeVirgil
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