Newsweek made waves this week with an article that claims to unmask Satoshi Nakamoto, the previously anonymous person whose name was the only one listed on the 2008 whitepaper that launched the modern cryptocurrency movement.
The fallout from Newsweek’s story is still up in the air, with the subject of the story now denying in an AP article that he is who Newsweek claims he is, and disputing his lone quote in the article on the basis of a “misunderstanding.” Whether or not it is true, the Newsweek story is just the latest in the wild speculation and global investigations of a mysterious name to which many have tried to attach an identity.
Finger pointing at Nakamoto’s developers
In Bitcoin’s early stages, Nakamoto sought help from developers who were skilled and interested enough to help strengthen the system. Gavin Andresen, who is identified as Bitcoin’s “chief scientist” and quoted prominently in Newsweek’s article, appears to have had the most contact with Nakamoto early on. Even so, he never spoke on the phone with him and could not get Nakamoto to reveal a single personal detail.
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Given his long relationship with Bitcoin, many accused Andresen of creating a fake mastermind to create the illusion that he was just contributing to Bitcoin, rather than serving as its founder. Many users in Bitcoin forums seemed assured of it, and a May 2013 Motherboard article him as a “prime suspect.” Andresen has even been called the “Batman” of the Bitcoin world, according to the Motherboard article. Many believed he was also its Bruce Wayne.
A Bitcoin developer named Dustin Trammell responded to charges that he was actually Nakamoto in late October 2013, after discussions in forums implicated him in some of the earliest Bitcoin transactions. Trammell attempted to debunk the myth in the forums, admitting that he had communicated with the real Nakamoto via email while reporting bugs in Bitcoin’s early days. He eventually published an article in The Daily Dot in November 2013, with the blunt headline, “I Am Not Satoshi”.
Conspiracy theories and translation attempts
Many have looked at the name “Satoshi Nakamoto” as a puzzle itself, meant to hide the identity of the people or groups behind Bitcoin.
The most popular of these is the idea of an invisible hand controlled by a corporate consortium. The name Satoshi Nakamoto, in this theory, derives from these four names: SAmsung, TOSHIba, NAKAmichi MOTOrola.
Others have translated the name to try to find clues. One such theory alleges that the name “Satoshi Nakamoto” shows ties to the CIA. From a Bitcoin forum post just weeks ago:
Japanese names are presented with the surname first, this would make it Nakamoto Satoshi [sic] In Japanese , Nakamoto means "central origin", while Satoshi means "clear thinking, quick witted,, wise", i.e intelligent. The name can therefore be translated to mean "Central Inteligent"
In August 2012, Japanese mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki released several papers on the Internet, in which he solved the “ABC Conjecture,” which a May 2013 article at Project Wordsworth described as “a famed, beguilingly simple number theory problem that had stumped mathematicians for decades.”
That article makes no mention of Bitcoin, but it was enough to launch theories that Mochizuki was, when not solving maddeningly difficult math problems, spending his free time building a digital currency under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Technology pioneer Ted Nelson posted a video to YouTube suggesting that Mochizuki may be posing as Nakamoto, with little more proof than that the math genius is smart enough to have accomplished it. Another blog post threw the theory out there with some speculation: Mochizuki grew up in the U.S. and was fluent in English; he fits the age range and nationality that Nakamoto claimed after releasing his whitepaper in 2008; there is the “same number of Hiragana symbols in first and last names of the two identities.” Helping push this theory was their similarity in approach – rather than bring their breakthroughs to traditional channels, such as academics in economics and mathematics, both Nakamoto and Mochizuki released them on the Internet. The evidence never got more accurate than that, however.
Another potential lead stemmed from research on the entire Bitcoin transaction graph published in 2012. Conducted by researchers Dorit Ron and Adi Shamir, the paper discusses a handful of massive transactions at the onset of the Bitcoin network, many of which were deposits into accounts that have never made an outgoing transaction. The paper caused a stir in the Bitcoin community; Dustin Trammell derided it in his article in the Daily Dot, for example. Ron and Shamir’s findings never really lifted the veil on Nakamoto, but the researchers suggested that it may have led to the doors of his vault.
“Finally, we noted that the subgraph which contains these large transactions along with their neighborhood has many strange looking structures which could be an attempt to conceal the existence and relationship between these transactions, but such an attempt can be foiled by following the money trail in a sufficiently persistent way,” the paper explains.
The public speculation
In October 2011, The New Yorker published an article on its international goose chase for the man behind the name. Based on the limited available evidence - perhaps the flimsiest being Nakamoto’s use of “flawless English” and British spelling of certain terms - led the investigation to Michael Clear. At the time, Clear was a graduate student at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, who was studying cryptography, had worked on a cryptocurrency service for an Irish bank, and had written a paper on peer-to-peer technology which “employed British spelling.” When The New Yorker’s Joshua Davis confronted him, Clear laughed off the allegation, but eventually led Davis to another potential lead.
Vili Lehdonvirta, a Finnish researcher at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology at the time, also laughed off the allegation. When Davis probed him, he spoke on his views about anonymity and anarchy that basically contradicted Bitcoin’s purposes. Towards the end of the article, Davis paraphrased Clear’s comments on the system – “Nakamoto’s identity shouldn’t matter.”
Fast Company followed the New Yorker’s piece with one showing its own investigation, which led to three men listed on a patent that used a similar phrase in the Bitcoin whitepaper. Neal J. King, Vladimir Oksman, and Charles Bry filed an application for the patent, titled “Updating and Distributing Encryption Keys invention,” just three days before the Bitcoin.org domain name was registered. Adam Penenberg, the author of the Fast Company article and a journalism professor at New York University, contacted King and Bry (he also accidentally contacted the wrong Vladimir Oksman through LinkedIn) and received staunch denials in return. King claimed he hadn’t even heard of Bitcoin until Penenberg contacted him.
Penenberg released his incomplete findings only in response to the New Yorker piece, to show the difficulty of trying to break Nakamoto’s anonymity and how easy it is to get carried away with conjecture.
“But the point of this column isn't to claim we found Satoshi Nakamoto. It's to show how circumstantial evidence, which is what the New Yorker based its conclusions on, isn't synonymous with truth. I doubt the New Yorker found the right guy. I also believe that our evidence is far more compelling, yet we also probably haven't nailed it either. In fact, we may have to wait a Deep Throat length of time before we ever find out who the real Nakamoto is, and by then it might not matter.”
Colin Neagle covers emerging technologies and the startup scene for Network World. Follow him on Twitter @ntwrkwrldneagle and keep up with the Microsoft, Cisco and Open Source community blogs. Colin's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.