One of the biggest mysteries in the technology world is who invented Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency (and payment network) that’s now worth billions of dollars and could — according to supporters, at least — revolutionize the financial industry. Until now, the technology’s creator was known only as Satoshi Nakamoto, an online pseudonym whose offline persona was a tightly guarded secret.
Many people have tried and failed to unmask Bitcoin’s inventor. One list compiled this summer counted 10 people or organizations that might be the real Satoshi Nakamoto, ranging from cryptographer Nick Szabo to the National Security Agency. The most notorious case came last year, when Newsweek reported that Nakamoto was an elderly Japanese model train enthusiast living in California — only to have its reporting decisively debunked.
On Tuesday, independent reporting by Wired and Gizmodo both pointed to a new candidate: an Australian technologist named Craig Steven Wright. Wright fits the basic Nakamoto profile — he’s a brilliant and secretive technologist — and leaked documents appear to provide overwhelming evidence that Wright is Nakamoto’s real-life alter ego.
The scoops are based on documents that were — purportedly — taken from Wright by a hacker. The question, then, is whether the documents are authentic. Gizmodo talked to several people — including Wright’s ex-wife — who seemed to believe that Wright was Nakamoto. And Wright himself seemed to tacitly acknowledge the documents’ authenticity in a phone call.
However, it’s also possible that the documents are part of an elaborate hoax perpetrated by Wright himself. A key piece of evidence in the Wired story is a series of blog posts by Wright from 2008 and early 2009 — before and immediately after Bitcoin’s launch — that suggest that Wright had close ties to Bitcoin and Nakamoto. However, sleuthing by Wired indicates that these details were added to the posts sometime after 2013, suggesting someone — and that someone would almost certainly be Wright himself — was trying to manufacture evidence of a Wright-Nakamoto link.
So there are two possibilities here. One is that Craig Wright is Satoshi Nakamoto. The other is that Wright has been conducting an elaborate, year-long con to convince the world that he is Satoshi Nakamoto. When I originally wrote this story on Tuesday evening, I was pretty sure that Nakamoto had been found. But after sleeping on it and looking through the evidence again, I’m more skeptical.
What is the evidence that Wright is Nakamoto?
The leaked documents include emails dating back to 2008 — before Bitcoin’s creation — in which Wright discusses his work on Bitcoin and acknowledges his alter ego as Satoshi Nakamoto (GMX and vistomail are services that hosted Nakamoto’s email accounts):
A legal document suggests that Wright had 1.1 million bitcoins. This sum, worth about $400 million, is the same amount that Nakamoto is believed to own.
Gizmodo says it reached Wright by telephone and he seemed to tacitly confirm the documents’ authenticity: “On a subsequent call, in which lines from his purported emails were read back to him, an audibly unsettled Wright asked ‘how did you get that?’ and stated ‘you shouldn’t have that.'”
While in Australia, Gizmodo also talked to several other people who knew Wright. Gizmodo writes, “Wright’s ex-wife Lynn recalled her husband working on Bitcoin ‘many years ago,’ but noted that he ‘didn’t call it Bitcoin’ at first, but rather ‘digital money.'”
Could this be another hoax?
The last time a major media organization — Newsweek — claimed to have unmasked Satoshi Nakamoto, it turned out to be a massive journalistic blunder. Leah McGrath Goodman’s case that an elderly Japanese train collector in California was the true inventor of the cryptocurrency didn’t stand up to close scrutiny, and in retrospect it appears that Goodman read way too much into circumstantial evidence that simply didn’t prove what she thought it did.
The Wired and Gizmodo stories are different. If the leaked documents are authentic, they conclusively demonstrate that Wright — or someone closely associated with him — is Bitcoin’s creator and the man behind the Satoshi Nakamoto persona. And Wright himself tacitly acknowledged the authenticity of the documents to Gizmodo, making it unlikely that a third party created the documents to frame Wright. The only real question is whether the documents themselves might be part of an elaborate hoax.
A key bit of evidence in the Wired story are two blog posts by Wright from 2008 — before Bitcoin’s creation — that appear to provide strong circumstantial evidence that Wright is Nakamoto. These posts reference an unreleased cryptocurrency project, and they include an encryption key that’s linked to the email address firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s similar — but not identical — to the email@example.com address Nakamoto has used himself. Another blog post from January 10, 2009 — right around the time of Bitcoin’s release — says that “The Beta of Bitcoin is live tomorrow.” Again, if these posts were genuine, they would pretty conclusively demonstrate that Wright was Nakamoto.
The problem is that these “smoking gun” details appear to have been added to the posts long after 2009, as Wired’s Andy Greenberg reported:
Comparisons of different archived versions of the three smoking gun posts from Wright’s blog show that he did edit all three—to insert evidence of his bitcoin history. The PGP key associated with Nakamoto’s email address and references to an upcoming “cryptocurrency paper” and “triple entry accounting” were added sometime after 2013. Even the post noting bitcoin’s beta launch is questionable. While it was ostensibly posted in January 2009, it later seems to have been deleted and then undeleted—or possibly even written for the first time—sometime between October 2013 and June of 2014.
This seems like evidence that someone was trying to fool people into believing there’s a link between Wright and Nakamoto. And of course the person in the best position to tamper with Wright’s blog is Wright himself.
Could Wright have also created a bunch of fake emails and sent them to reporters at Wired and Gizmodo? The oldest, most significant documents could prove difficult to authenticate because most of them — including the two I reproduced above — were emails sent to Dave Kleiman, a computer forensics expert who died in 2013.
The document dump also included emails, transcripts, and other documents that involved other people, but (at least among the documents Gizmodo has released) these are of more recent vintage and demonstrate only that Wright has been claiming to be Satoshi in private correspondence in the last couple of years. If Wright were conducting a long-running hoax to convince the world that he is Satoshi Nakamoto, the fact that he recently convinced his wife and a few business associates that he was Nakamoto doesn’t prove much.
What does it mean if Satoshi Nakamoto has been unmasked?
The intense public interest in Nakamoto’s identity occurred primarily because it makes a great story. But unmasking Bitcoin’s founder could also have practical significance. After actively contributing to Bitcoin’s development during the project’s first two years, Nakamoto handed his role off to a successor — Gavin Andreessen — in 2011. He has maintained near-total radio silence ever since.
Nakamoto’s absence has helped to burnish one of the system’s key selling points: that it’s a decentralized system not under the control of any specific person or organization. Andreessen inherited Nakamoto’s technical role in the Bitcoin development process, but he didn’t inherit his predecessor’s prestige within the Bitcoin community. As a result, the Bitcoin community has had to make decisions by consensus, with no one wielding a veto over technical decisions.
One beneficial side effect — in the eyes of many Bitcoin supporters — is that Bitcoin has been hard for regulators to control. With no single person or organization having the authority to unilaterally modify how the Bitcoin network worked, there was no one government officials could approach to demand changes. And because the technology spanned national borders, it wasn’t easy to shut down. As a result, governments were forced to accept the network as it was.
If Wright is Satoshi Nakamoto, he will instantly become the most prominent person in the Bitcoin world. The community could look to him as the final authority in long-running disputes, for example its debate over how to expand the network’s capacity. And if he once again becomes active in the Bitcoin community, he may become the target of unwanted attention from government regulators.
Yet Nakamoto’s four-year absence from the Bitcoin community has made a big difference. His years of radio silence have transformed him from a day-to-day manager of the Bitcoin community into a mythical figure. Other powerful individuals and institutions have stepped forward to fill the power vacuum he left. And while they may have a lot of respect for Nakamoto’s accomplishment in inventing Bitcoin, they’re unlikely to automatically defer to his judgments.