On Tuesday, within a few hours of each other, Wired, and then Gizmodo, published articles contending that Satoshi Nakamoto, the name under which bitcoin was introduced to the world in November, 2008, is likely the pseudonym of an Australian information-security specialist named Craig Steven Wright. Both publications were working from anonymously sourced documents provided to them in November, and although both stopped short of expressing certainty Wired risked a headline proclaiming “Bitcoin’s Creator Satoshi Nakamoto Is Probably This Unknown Australian Genius.”
Soon after, I asked Gavin Andresen, who has been bitcoin’s de-facto lead developer since 2011, whether he thought the story was legitimate. He replied, “I have no idea if it’s true. I’d never heard of Craig Wright until skimming the Wired article just now.”
Attempt after attempt has been made to identify Nakamoto (Joshua Davis had a go, in 2011). The more journalists fail, the sweeter and more tempting the prize has become, like a burgeoning lottery jackpot. But past failures have led bitcoin watchers to become skeptical of such claims, and soon enough there were growing indications that key evidence linking Wright to Nakamoto was suspect.
There are two kinds of evidence that would verify the identity of the real Nakamoto beyond reasonable doubt. One is a digitally encrypted signature originating from private keys known to belong to him. The blockchain, bitcoin’s distributed ledger, contains a record of every bitcoin transaction ever made, and Nakamoto himself conducted the first transactions on the so-called genesis block, which left unfalsifiable records of his personal bitcoin addresses. He could send bitcoins from one of these addresses in order to prove his identity or use the address to “sign” an encrypted message. Nakamoto also published an ordinary P.G.P. fingerprint, of the kind commonly used for encrypting email, in his early writings; an encrypted signature originating from that address would provide similarly strong proof. But because it would be possible to steal or otherwise acquire this information from the real Nakamoto, even the appearance of a digital signature would still require careful investigation.
The second kind of evidence would be knowledge-based. The real Nakamoto would be able to describe in detail the work that he did before launching bitcoin, in January, 2009; he would be able to produce, or at least convincingly describe, private conversations and projects that he shared with key bitcoin figures such as Andresen, who has been a core developer of the cryptocurrency’s software from its earliest days, and the late Hal Finney, a pioneering developer of P.G.P. public-key cryptography. It goes without saying that this second kind of evidence would require that the candidate be willing submit to an interview.
Neither Wired nor Gizmodo was able to produce ironclad, cryptographically signed, or interview-based evidence of this kind. Instead, their cases rely on e-mails and documents purportedly taken from Wright’s computer. These include a draft trust agreement for the disposition of a cache of 1.1 million bitcoins, to be held by a company in the Seychelles whose ownership is linked, in the agreement, to an e-mail address and public keys known to have once been controlled by Nakamoto. The stories also include accounts of the strange, sad history of the late Dave Kleiman, Wright’s former colleague, who is alleged in the leaked documents to have been involved in helping conceal Wright’s identity as bitcoin’s inventor, and who died in April, 2013. Gizmodo also quoted two of Kleiman’s business partners, who claimed that Wright had told them that he and Kleiman were involved in the invention of bitcoin.
The convoluted, circumstantial nature of this evidence makes the stories look unusual, at best. To their credit, both publications acknowledged the holes; the authors of the Wired story, Andy Greenberg and Gwern Branwen, were particularly careful to allow the possibility of an elaborate hoax. As for Gizmodo, the site’s editor-in-chief, Katie Drummond, told me in an e-mail that her team had performed due diligence. “We didn’t think the hack alone was enough to go with, as compelling as some of these documents were,” she said. To try to verify the documents’ authenticity, Gizmodo hired a stringer in Sydney; sent the reporter Andy Cush, who co-wrote the story with Sam Biddle, to Florida; and relied on various experts.
But many questions remain. Gizmodo’s version of events makes much of a 2014 transcript of a meeting between Wright, his lawyer, and a representative of the Australian Taxation Office, in which Wright said, “I did my best to try and hide the fact that I’ve been running bitcoin since 2009.… By the end of this I think half the world is going to bloody know.” The same remark appears as a pull quote in Wired’s piece. Even if the transcript is genuine, though, it’s unlikely that “running bitcoin” was meant in the sense of “running a business.” Nobody “runs” open-source software like bitcoin; not even Andresen would ever have referred to himself in this way, because such software is designed specifically to give users the chance of having some hand in its development. It’s more likely that the phrase meant running the bitcoin software used to mine the currency. (The program is a sort of computational competition for a bitcoin reward that is generated roughly every ten minutes.) It would make sense, on one level, for Wright to profess a desire to conceal that he had been mining for so long, if it were true. Anybody who’d been mining steadily since 2009—when the network consisted of a few ordinary computers, rather than thousands of massively powerful purpose-built ones, as it does today—would have amassed a ton of bitcoin; you could have bought five thousand bitcoins for around twenty-seven dollars in cash in 2009 and they would now be worth around two million dollars.
It’s also possible that the Wright didn’t really have a huge cache of bitcoin, but that he, or someone else, wanted people to believe that he did. But why?
Online bitcoin aficionados were decidedly bearish about the revelations, and some of the skeptics soon began to dig for answers. Among the many possible identities who have been proposed as the real Nakamoto—Andresen, Finney, Michael Clear, Nick Szabo—Wright was generally reckoned to be a little more likely (though not by much) than Dorian Nakamoto, who was named by Newsweek, in 2014. (On Reddit’s r/bitcoin page, redditor sjalq wrote, “Can we please keep pretending it’s Szabo? He’s just cooler.” Szabo designed “bit gold,” a cryptocurrency scheme, released in 1998, that included features later incorporated in Bitcoin.) One prominent critique came from bitcoin core developer Greg Maxwell, who posts on Reddit as nullc. Maxwell found metadata indicating that the public P.G.P. keys Wired and Gizmodo had referred to might have been backdated. (That is to say, the keys themselves bore signs of having been created long after the dates of the leaked documents in which they appeared.)
Nathaniel Popper, a Times reporter and the author of “Digital Gold,” a recent book on bitcoin, expressed doubt from the first, tweeting, “The details of the Wright-Satoshi link are very convincing but where I get stuck is the personality.” It is indeed striking to note that while Nakamoto’s online existence is limited to a few restrained and elegant forum posts and messages, the voluble Wright had a very wide footprint—at least until a few days ago.
After the stories first broke, Biddle reported that Wright had deleted his Twitter account, his YouTube account, and his blog. More suspiciously, the Web sites for DeMorgan and Cloudcroft, two companies in which Wright held large stakes, also disappeared. In a YouTube video that I saw before it was deleted, Wright touted Cloudcroft’s Tulip Trading, a subsidiary operation running a powerful supercomputer known as C01N. On its Web site, Cloudcroft had posted a letter of endorsement from the Australian computer manufacturer Silicon Graphics Incorporated (S.G.I.), which said that it had built and tuned Cloudcroft’s supercomputer. The letter, and other related information on Cloudcroft and DeMorgan’s Web sites, immediately struck some online-hardware experts as bogus. One asked, “Did anyone call SGI and ask them if they sold this guy a ~100 million dollar system? It’s kind of hard to miss.”
Soon enough, someone did. On Thursday night, ZDNet reported that S.G.I. denied having any relationship with Wright. “Cloudcroft has never been an SGI customer and SGI has no relationship with Cloudcroft CEO Craig Steven Wright,” Cassio Conceicao, S.G.I.’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said.
According to public documents, another of Wright’s companies, Hotwire, is headed into receivership; it was purportedly funded solely with about twenty-two million dollars’ worth of bitcoin, and was also, evidently, taking advantage of an Australian tax-rebate program entitling it to cash rebates of forty-five cents on the dollar for sums spent by the company on research and development. Receivership documents explaining Hotwire’s apparent insolvency indicate that Wright was claiming losses “due to the collapse of Mount Gox.” This reference, to the 2014 crash of the Mt. Gox Bitcoin exchange, shows that Wright has been trying to explain his bitcoin losses to the authorities for some time. DeMorgan was also apparently cashing in on the same rebate scheme, to the tune of fifty-four million Australian dollars.
Likely in connection with these developments, Australian police raided Wright’s house in Sydney this week, saying in a statement that the raid was related to tax matters. These potential legal troubles, combined with the possibility that the transcript Wired and Gizmodo had singled out, in which Wright purported to be “running bitcoin,” seemed to confirm the possibility that someone had falsified documents in order to suggest that Wright was Nakamoto. Australian officials have yet to release more details of their investigation, but it’s possible, for example, that the bitcoin against which these real Australian tax dollars were being refunded simply never existed, or that Wright’s companies had been funded by investors who were quietly told that they were doing business with the true inventor of bitcoin.
If Wright isn’t Nakamoto, it follows that he would have preferred for such a deception to remain uninvestigated, in which case whoever provided the fabricated documents to Wired, Gizmodo, and others had motives of his own. The informer might have been an extortionist, as the cryptocurrency expert Ian Grigg has claimed. Or the leaker himself may have been cheated, and was “doxxing” Wright to get revenge on him. (A vulgar but pithy explanation of this latter possibility, upon which I cannot seem to improve, was posted on Wednesday morning by a Bitcoin Forum member known as Quantus.)
Any of these possibilities would explain the only direct response anyone seems to have been able to get from Wright. In the original Gizmodo article, Biddle confronted Wright by phone, reading to him from the leaked e-mails. “An audibly unsettled Wright asked ‘how did you get that?’ ” the article says. This, combined with Wright’s legal troubles, also suggests why so much of Wright’s digital footprint disappeared so suddenly. In any case, it won’t be long before the real bitcoin experts, to say nothing of the Australian Tax Office, arrive at some answers to these questions.
Regardless of what those answers are, the complexity of Wright’s situation gives some insight into why reporters and editors at Wired and Gizmodo gave enough credence to the documents they’d received to work on them for six weeks. But it appears that a racing mentality set in, and the trigger was pulled on a story that is still being written.
“We found out that Wired was on the same path on Monday afternoon, and started fine-tuning our draft to be ready to publish,” Drummond told me. “I believe the word ‘fuck’ was uttered by several people. But mostly it was focussed work from that point and no panic—we wanted to take the ninety minutes to do that rather than hit ‘publish’ right away.”
Both Wired and Gizmodo are standing by their stories, for the moment. Greenberg wrote to me in an e-mail, “Until more substantial facts come to light, we continue to believe what we wrote in our story: That the most likely answer to this mystery is that Craig Wright is the inventor of Bitcoin, and that the second most likely answer is that he’s staged an elaborate, strange and long-planned hoax.”
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