Like a lot of people, I got pretty excited on Thursday to read that a Newsweek reporter had figured out the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the creator of bitcoin. I found the article, to which I’m not linking because Newsweek’s website sucks, so compelling that I read it immediately instead of paying attention during my company’s 401K seminar for employees that morning.
To summarize, it’s been assumed for years that “Satoshi Nakamoto” was a pseudonym and that the “Satoshi Nakamoto” who created bitcoin may actually have been a group of people working together, rather than a single person – perhaps even the NSA or the CIA.
What Goodman learned is that there is a man named Satoshi Nakamoto who lives in California, who is extremely nerdy and skilled at mathematics and engineering (means), who is a libertarian and frequently does international monetary transactions (motive) and who was apparently not employed full time during the years when bitcoin seems to have been developed (opportunity).
Goodman contacted this Nakamoto and asked him whether he created bitcoin. He said, “I’m no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it,” while she was being prevented from accosting Nakamoto at his home by police officers, who overheard the exchange.
My reaction to all of this was a bit of thrill and a bit of disappointment. The thrill was because Satoshi Nakamoto was not living under deep cover at all – he was hiding in plain sight, having changed his name legally to Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto – and had simply chosen no longer to involve himself in bitcoin’s activities and development. The disappointment was because I anticipated an ensuing personalization of the bitcoin project, community and product in a way that would inevitably harm bitcoin. (For what it’s worth, I have never mined, traded or received bitcoin.)
I assumed this case was basically closed, but I was wrong. Nearly immediately, Nakamoto himself began lukewarm and lame denials that he said what he said, or perhaps that he meant what he said. Unfortunately for him, the police officers who’d been at his home verified Goodman’s account, confirming that Nakamoto had in fact replied that he was “no longer involved in” bitcoin. Not that he had never been involved; not that he didn’t know what it was: that he was no longer involved in that.
Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto has a lot of good reasons to deny that he is the Satoshi Nakamoto.
The Satoshi Nakamoto who created bitcoin, by virtue of having been involved in mining at the very beginning, controls a stash worth approximately $400,000,000. If that person’s identity became public, he’d immediately become a very attractive target to con artists, thieves and hackers, which is not an appealing prospect. Someone could do some harm to him and hold something of his for ransom, like what happened to Naoki Hiroshima.
There are also a lot of unresolved legal issues with bitcoin that could expose not just bitcoin’s founder, but anyone involved in the bitcoin ecosystem to federal money laundering charges. And for the guy behind it all, the cherry on top of that money laundering might be a nice fat conspiracy charge to make sure he spends the rest of his life behind bars.
Additionally, if Nakamoto created bitcoin using any kind of technical knowledge that he received while working for the government, or for a government contractor, he might be in violation of his non-disclosure agreements (or he might think this is a possibility, or he might think that that some government lawyer thinks this is a possibility).
Besides that, the intelligence, cryptographic, finance, libertarian and privacy communities would all be on top of him constantly, demanding that he appear as a speaker and panelist, writing papers, giving interviews and weighing in on important matters. He’d get calls to appear on the Sunday morning talk shows and he’d be nominated for all kinds of awards. But he is a private person – not a recluse, but content to live his life and create his creations away from prying eyes. Perhaps he’s just not interested in changing his lifestyle.
Nakamoto’s denial was weak and uncompelling:
Several times during the interview with AP, Nakamoto mistakenly referred to the currency as “bitcom,” and as a single company, which it is not. He said he’s never heard of Gavin Andresen, a leading bitcoin developer. Andresen had told Newsweek he’d worked closely with the person or entity known as “Satoshi Nakamoto” in developing the system, but said he never met Nakamoto in person or spoke on the phone.
Since the creator of bitcoin, whether he is Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto, a different Satoshi Nakamoto, another person or a group of people, would definitely have very strong incentives to deny any involvement, we can safely disregard Nakamoto’s silliness about not understanding what bitcoin is or what it’s called, which is nakedly self-serving – and anyone who doubts the incentive to deny involvement must explain why bitcoin’s creator hasn’t come forward to share his identity until now. On top of that, Nakamoto himself has personal reasons not to want any public attention: he’s a nerdy, shy, very private libertarian who lives with his mother and has some unfortunate health issues.
The reddit-style backlash to Goodman’s article in Newsweek that I saw on twitter – particularly in the feed of my former CNET colleague Declan McCullagh, but certainly not limited to him – was pretty underwhelming. He shared a rapgenius page that attempted to debunk the Newsweek article, which I will sample:
you’d imagine this article would have gone out of its way to provide airtight proof.
Not really. I’d imagine that the article would provide a lot of evidence – as much evidence as possible to convince the readership and make a splash. Airtight proof is unlikely and possibly impossible if bitcoin’s creator has destroyed the proof and is unwilling to confirm his identity.
Instead, the evidence presented for this proposition is extraordinarily thin and does not demonstrate [list of technical proofs]:
But as I stated above, both the Satoshi Nakamoto who created bitcoin and the Satoshi Nakamoto in the Newsweek article have a lot of incentive to deny creating bitcoin. So the fact that neither one has confirmed the story by offering technical proof is not convincing.
it seems highly implausible that a person who was a world-class expert in cryptography — and who went great lengths to cover his tracks and remain pseudonymous — would be so silly as to use his middle name and real last name as a cover identity.
Unless he never intended for his bitcoin creation to become the humongous spectacle that it did become. Or unless he has just a tiny bit of vanity that did indeed lead him to use his real name.
the invasion of privacy of an elderly citizen with no evidence tying him to Bitcoin’s ownership
Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto’s privacy was not invaded, at least by Leah Goodman. She reported a newsworthy story backed up by a horde of evidence. If bitcoin were a crime, I believe this would be enough evidence for a jury to convict him, though I don’t believe it’s a slam dunk case.
Nakamoto is also not a victim here: he is the one who apparently created bitcoin and used his real name to do it.
Yet it was not retracted, and indeed many journalists are still repeating the claims therein.
Why would it be retracted? Nothing in it has been proven incorrect. Nakamoto’s denials are predictable and easily disregarded. Newsweek has done the right thing in standing by their reporter.
An account that was previously known to be used by the actual author(s) of Bitcoin (well before s/he became world famous) in turn denied that he is Dorian Nakamoto:
D.P.S. Nakamoto has incentive to deny that he is the Satoshi Nakamoto who created bitcoin.
Writing samples of Dorian and Satoshi do not match
This is probably the only strong point that the deniers have made. I don’t have a very good rebuttal to this, which is why I think Goodman’s case is overwhelmingly likely to be true, but not to the point that it can be accepted as obviously proven.
With that in mind, it is a fact that both Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto and Satoshi Nakamoto are extraordinarily smart – certainly smart enough to maintain two separate writing styles, one for formal work with the bitcoin community and another for casual things like emails. It’s also the case that, as an immigrant to the United States, Nakamoto likely isn’t the best writer in English and may write English poorly when the subject is unimportant, but invest a lot of effort to composing really tight, excellent prose for critical communications.
Requisite level of technical expertise does not match
Satoshi Nakamoto of the internet created bitcoin. Satoshi Nakamoto of Temple City, California, is highly skilled at math and engineering, has worked for the defense industry, and is a nerdy libertarian who collects and modifies model trains. While there’s no proof that the latter has the exact technical expertise necessary to create bitcoin, can you seriously claim that he’s unlikely ever to have looked into cryptography in his spare time?
Most importantly, Dorian has not demonstrated access to the private keys associated (a) with early mined BTC blocks or (b) with the known PGP public key of Bitcoin’s author.
But why would he? The whole point is that he doesn’t want people to know that it’s him.
Dorian Nakamoto evidently worked as an engineer on classified military projects in the past. The penalties for violating confidentiality in those circumstances are severe. It makes total sense that he would be worried about getting into trouble for talking to a reporter about his prior work — particularly a reporter who had previously approached him to talk about model trains before switching the topic to his work as an engineer.
If that were the case, then Nakamoto could simply have said, “I signed a non-disclosure agreement and I have nothing more to say.” Or he could have said, “I have nothing to say about my professional career working for the government.”
The reporter claims he tacitly acknowledged “his role in the Bitcoin project”, but note that even in the quote below, on which this entire story rests, he does not actually say “Bitcoin”.
That’s because he’s not a robot and doesn’t need to keep repeating a proper noun after the subject of his statement has been made clear.
Four million people hold top secret security clearances. It is not that exceptional. This kind of verbal suggestion typifies the article.
But how many of those people are named Satoshi Nakamoto? How many are libertarians? How many got their security clearances by being engineers who were extremely gifted in math? Just one.
The first name Satoshi and last name Nakamoto are moderately common in Japan, certainly more so than in the US. Satoshi is the 69th most popular first name in Japan and Nakamoto is the 492nd most popular surname. The combination is indeed infrequent in the same way the combination of any two names is infrequent, but it’s not necessarily “distinctive” in the way the author is implying.
There are only a few people in the world named Satoshi Nakamoto. Only one of them has had the skills, interests and availability to create bitcoin.
OK. When it comes to math, let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that Mr. Dorian Nakamoto is above the population average in mathematical ability [followed by longwinded digression that attempts to argue that D. P. S. Nakamoto is good at math, but not that good at math].
Here’s the problem with this: it’s the dumbest kind of nitpicking I’ve ever seen.
Albert Einstein, before he spent a year coming up with four theories that overturned physics, may have been considered good at math, but not that good at math. Once that happened, however, and once the skeptics had been satisifed that yes, in fact, this guy named Albert Einstein had done these miraculous things, he was recongnized in retrospect as being that good at math. Why couldn’t that be true for Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto? Why must we believe that someone who was good at math couldn’t in fact be that good at math and that the world just didn’t understand or appreciate him until now?
Dorian did classified work. There are penalties for violating security clearances. This doesn’t mean he is hiding anything about Bitcoin.
But it definitely implies that if he denies involvement in bitcoin, there could be several good explanations besides a genuine lack of involvement in bitcoin.
Note that the article nowhere says that his brother suggested Dorian may have created Bitcoin, but the quote ‘He’ll never admit to starting Bitcoin.” does of course leave the impression that his brother now thinks that Dorian did.
Putting aside what his brother believes, which isn’t relevant, his brother says that he won’t acknowledge having created bitcoin – and that is very relevant.
If you needed to, then you still have that need.
Seeing how you treated the faux Satoshi, the real one is not likely to meet you any time soon.
Petty and amateurish. I’m going to stop critiquing this critique and get on with my life, secure in what I’m pretty sure has been definitively demonstrated: Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto of Temple City, California, is the same Satoshi Nakamoto who created bitcoin.
To summarize the beliefs of the people who disagree:
- The whole story wasn’t newsworthy.
- It may in fact be newsworthy to write a story about the man who created bitcoin, but in this case, a man’s personal and private information was revealed against his will.
- It may in fact be fine to reveal the identity of the man who created bitcoin, but Leah Goodman got it wrong.
To address these point by point:
- This is definitely a newsworthy story and the media are justified in making a big event out of it. Bitcoin has the potential to revolutionize financial transactions in a way that hasn’t been seen since the creation of fiat money. And bitcoin is way better than fiat money. On the other hand, bitcoin may be such a threat to the government and to finance that it’s made illegal, or that its users are compelled to stop using it by being accused of money laundering. Either way, this is a huge story.
- The creator of bitcoin is one of the most important men – or groups of men – alive today, all the more so if bitcoin really takes off and if the government fails to stop it (or if the government decides to embrace it). His identity shouldn’t matter in the sense that it changes what we think of bitcoin, but it certainly does and should matter for other reasons – just like the identity of anyone who creates something ingeniuously matters.
- For Leah Goodman and Newsweek to have gotten this wrong, think of all the crazy coincidences that must be true. Now think of how unlikely they are all to be true. Now think of how likely it is that she was right about Satoshi Nakamoto.
By the way, I do hold out the possibility that Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto is being set up by some secret cabal of libertarian cryptographer programmers who discovered that he had a security clearance and that he hadn’t been working steadily for a few years, and decided that he’d be the perfect fall guy. This hasn’t actually been disproven. But conspiracy theories like this tend to open up a whole other can of worms. In this case, the obvious question would be: why did the conspirators choose to pick on Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto and why did they conceal it by using the name “Satoshi Nakamoto” when they could have used “Dorian Nakamoto” or “Dorian P. S. Nakamoto” or something that would have let investigators find this guy and blame him sooner and easier?
Similarly, if the person who created bitcoin simply made up the name “Satoshi Nakamoto” to use as his pseudonym, then why did he choose it? What does it mean to him? Why use a given name and family name at all? Why not pick a name with more overt significance for his magnum opus? Or why not present himself to the world with a randomly generated string of alphanumeric characters as his “name”?
One more point on denials: imagine for a minute that you have the very rare name Satoshi Nakamoto (which you’ve modified to Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto). Imagine also that there’s another Satoshi Nakamoto who did something significant, which started off obscure but then, over a period of several years, gained a lot of traction and got a lot of people talking about it. Imagine that someone with your profile – middle aged man, libertarian, gifted at math, professional engineer, top secret securty clearance, nerdy – is almost 100% guaranteed to have heard of this thing, just by virtue of who you are, what your name is and what your interests and skills are.
Doesn’t it stand to reason that D. P. S. Nakamoto would certainly and obviously have heard of bitcoin before Leah Goodman of Newsweek started calling him? Of course he would have.
And imagine that you, this other Satoshi Nakamoto, heard about the amazing creation of the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto. What would your response be? What would your denial be like when people asked if it was you?
You’d probably say something like…
- “That’s amazing that we share the same very rare name!”
- “That isn’t me, but I WISH it was me!”
- “Is someone playing a joke on me?!”
How likely is it that your response would actually go like this:
“I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it,” he says, dismissing all further queries with a swat of his left hand. “It’s been turned over to other people. They are in charge of it now. I no longer have any connection.”
Not likely at all.