Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? Part 2 of 3: Suspects in the Media
In this article, number 2 in our 3-part series on the identity of bitcoin’s elusive creator, we examine some of the spectacular claims made by the media (and by the suspects themselves) of who Satoshi Nakamoto actually is. Of course none of these claims have been 100% verified – the best (and only) possibly way to do this would be providing cryptographic proof, which comes in the form of providing a private key that could be used to digitally sign a transaction from a bitcoin address that assuredly belongs to Satoshi.
As bitcoin’s creator, Satoshi himself mined most of the early blocks from 2009, and perhaps a few in 2010. Because of the consistent hash rate and mining difficulty exhibited by the bitcoin network through most of 2009, it is safe to assume that there were only a handful of people mining at the time, one of which was Satoshi. Therefore, it stands to reason that if an individual indeed wanted to prove themselves as the actual Satoshi Nakamoto, all they needed to do was publicly move coins from any one of the many addresses he used when mining new bitcoins. Short of 3 known transactions which Satoshi made to prove that bitcoin indeed worked – all of which took place on January 12, 2009 (2-3 days after the launch of bitcoin) – Satoshi’s giant stash of bitcoins (thought to be close to one million in size) remains untouched.
This hasn’t stopped hoards of curious independent researchers and giant media organizations alike from taking a stab at uncovering the true identity of Satoshi. Who are some of those individuals named in the past as being bitcoin’s mastermind? We’ll take a tour through them here, going in chronological order of when they were “exposed.”
1. Michael Clear
In a New Yorker article published in October 2011 on bitcoin and Satoshi Nakamoto, author Joshua Davis collected all the criteria that were necessary for an individual to develop bitcoin. They would need to have a deep understanding of:
- computer science (specifically the C++ programming language)
- peer-to-peer networking
Based on this collection, and the fact that the code for bitcoin had thus far been determined unbreakable, Satoshi would have to be a rare kind of person, if not a team of people working together. Davis searched through a list of cryptographers for an individual with all the right qualifications and settled on a young Irish graduate student by the name of Michael Clear. Not only had Clear been programming in C++ since age 10, but he was also a cryptography enthusiast, knowledgeable about P2P networks, and had worked for Allied Irish Banks for a brief period of time.
During his interview with Davis, Clear made the following statement, which could be interpreted to fuel speculation that he may actually be Satoshi:
“I’m not Satoshi, but even if I was I wouldn’t tell you.”
Clear more or less immediately regretted his words, telling subsequent interviewers that he should have chosen his phrasing more carefully. After receiving nonstop questions about his work with bitcoin for 2 years, he finally published a blog post in 2013 as a plea to the public to stop emailing him, though interestingly, he didn’t flat out deny being Satoshi.
“Josh originally contacted me at Crypto 2011 about a paper I was involved with related to p2p, and I met up with him out of curiosity as to why he would be interested. For about 20 minutes we talked about that. When bitcoin came up, I remember we had a brief casual chat; I was naturally startled when he thought I could be Satoshi, and there was some humor and regrettable mistakes on my part.”
2. Nick Szabo
In December 2013, as the world’s first mega bitcoin exchange MtGOX was slowly collapsing, a new Satoshi candidate was hypothesized, that being Hungarian-American computer scientist and cryptographer Nick Szabo. An anonymous blog titled “Like In A Mirror” listed out an extended rationale as to why Szabo could very well be Satoshi over the course of 2 blog posts, both of which attracted much attention from the bitcoin community. Among the top reasons was Szabo’s previous creation of bitcoin’s most closely-related ancestor, “bit gold.”
Though it had been an idea since 1998, bit gold was never actually developed into a released version. Bit gold did contain all the elements needed to create bitcoin: a method for decentralization, the idea of “proof of work” and “time stamp servers,” as well as a network security mechanism to make sure funds couldn’t be hacked or the system improperly exploited. The blog author also gave a few other interesting points to evidence his claim:
- Szabo’s requests for help in his personal research with the development of bit gold trailed off after the announcement of bitcoin,
- the bitcoin whitepaper, though heavily influenced by Szabo, does not give credit to him for any of his ideas that were incorporated into bitcoin,
- the times of Satoshi’s posts more or less align with the EST time zone, which is that of Szabo’s residence.
In addition, a stylometric analysis of Satoshi’s white paper and other writings, compared to a few other pre-bitcoin cryptographers and computer scientists, concluded that Nick Szabo’s writing style most closely resembled that of Satoshi Nakamoto. However, Szabo has personally never accepted this hypothesis.
Not Satoshi, but thank you.
— Nick Szabo⚡️ (@NickSzabo4) May 11, 2018
Interestingly, Szabo does describe himself as a “blockchain, cryptocurrency, and smart contracts pioneer” on his Twitter page. His blog, titled “Enumerated” and started in 2005, contains many original essays about technology, money, and Szabo’s own experiments with digital currency. He continues to live a very public life, even giving talks on the nature of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies on a semi-regular basis.
3. Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto
Perhaps the most famous of the potential Satoshis is the case of Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, who also shares several overlapping characteristics with bitcoin’s creator, namely their namesake. Dorian Nakamoto was born in Japan (as Satoshi Nakamoto, later legally changing his first name to Dorian), and had attended college in California, obtained a degree in physics, going on to work for several different employers in several different industries, including Citibank and the U.S. government. A lot of his work as a systems engineer was largely secretive.
In a March 2014 cover story, Newsweek named Dorian as the inventor of bitcoin, largely based on a statement made during a brief conversation with the writer of the article in which he answered he was “no longer involved” with the bitcoin project (the encounter can’t be described as an “interview” because Dorian Nakamoto never agreed to one and only answered the reporter’s question of “did you invent bitcoin” in the presence of a police officer). This seemed to confirm that he was indeed the real Satoshi, except for one slight problem: he had misunderstood the reporter’s question and thought that he was talking about work he did while at Citibank. Only 5 days later, Newsweek published a letter sent to them by Dorian, lamenting over the excruciating effects their erroneous story had already had on his life:
“I did not create, invent or otherwise work on Bitcoin. I unconditionally deny the Newsweek report… The first time I heard the term “bitcoin” was from my son in mid-February 2014. After being contacted by a reporter, my son called me and used the word, which I had never before heard. Shortly thereafter, the reporter confronted me at my home.
I have no knowledge of nor have I ever worked on cryptography, peer to peer systems, or alternative currencies… My prospects for gainful employment has been harmed because of Newsweek’s article…
Newsweek’s false report has been the source of a great deal of confusion and stress for myself, my 93-year old mother, my siblings, and their families… This will be our last public statement on this matter. I ask that you now respect our privacy.”
4. Hal Finney
Finney, another bright computer programmer, got his start in the field developing Atari video games, but quickly became interested in cryptography, joining the Cypherpunks email list early on. He worked on Pretty Good Privacy, or PGP, from the project’s founding in 1991, becoming one of its first employees in 1996. As an employee, he developed PGP 2.0, one of the first widely used programs that allowed for file encryption and authentication, as well as encrypted communications. PGP 2.0 is considered by many to be the first truly secure version of the program, based around Finney’s development of a novel “web of trust” key-signing method. Thus, Finney helped create the idea of “peer-to-peer networking” (P2P) before it even had a name.
Finney was inspired by cryptographer of David Chaum, another Californian who had sought to employ computer-based cryptography to make online financial transactions secure and anonymous. While at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), Chaum had developed the first ever digital currency to be actually used, known as Ecash. Ecash had some of the anonymous and decentralized properties of bitcoin, but it was based on the US dollar and never managed to gain widespread adoption. In 2004, Finney expanded on Chaum’s work by creating the first reusable proof of work system, which would go on to become the basis for bitcoin’s proof of work hashing algorithm.
As a member of several cryptography mailing lists and online forums, Finney was aware of Satoshi’s bitcoin announcement shortly after it happened and downloaded the client software within days after its release. He was famously the recipient of the first recorded bitcoin transaction, in which he received 10 bitcoins from Satoshi Nakamoto, as part of a demonstration on how it worked. Finney was also a member of Satoshi’s bitcointalk.org forum, contributing hundreds of posts on how to improve bitcoin’s design. In 2009, Finney was diagnosed with ALS, a fatal neuromotor disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He continued to contribute to bitcoin all the way up until a few months before his death in 2014. In one of his final posts to the forum, Finney recounted his experiences dealing with Satoshi while telling the story of the progression of his disease, which by that point had left him completely paralyzed:
“When Satoshi announced the first release of the software, I grabbed it right away. I think I was the first person besides Satoshi to run bitcoin. I mined block 70-something, and I was the recipient of the first bitcoin transaction, when Satoshi sent ten coins to me as a test. I carried on an email conversation with Satoshi over the next few days, mostly me reporting bugs and him fixing them.
Today, Satoshi’s true identity has become a mystery. But at the time, I thought I was dealing with a young man of Japanese ancestry who was very smart and sincere. I’ve had the good fortune to know many brilliant people over the course of my life, so I recognize the signs.”
The rest of the content of Finney’s post was a heartwarming tale of courage and perseverance, and basically of a full life lived well. It brought about many compliments and remarks of sympathy, but also unleashed an element who used Finney’s stated association with Satoshi as the basis for speculation that they were both the same person. Though never specifically posed by the media in article form, theories about Finney and Nakamoto being the same person became more frequent.
During the last year of Finney’s life, when he was unable to move or even talk, he became the victim of an extortion attempt where an anonymous person demanded a ransom of 1,000 bitcoins (worth approximately $400,000 at the time) or they claimed they would release personal information about him to the public. His family would receive multiple calls from the extortionist over a period of months, whose demands could not be met because, 1) Finney was not Nakamoto and never possessed that many bitcoins at one time, and 2) whatever bitcoin Finney had mined in the early days went to pay for his ever-mounting medical expenses. The affair culminated in a swatting of Finney’s California home in May 2014, when the extortionist called police pretending to be a man located inside the house who had just murdered two people and was about to kill himself. Even as recently as 2017, Finney’s family remained the victim of hacking attempts by those attempting to maliciously profit from his association with Satoshi Nakamoto.
5. Craig Steven Wright
In one of the greatest bitcoin hoaxes of all-time, Australian businessman and computer scientist Craig Steven Wright led media sources across the globe on a wild goose chase after he publicly came forward as the inventor of bitcoin in interviews with both Wired and Gizmodo magazines, in December 2015. Wright had worked in several different computer science before, in information technology, as a systems security consultant, and had a hand in developing one of the world’s first online casinos. He also had planned to launch the first ever bitcoin-based bank, but the project ended after running into a string of regulatory hurdles.
What made Wright different from anybody else who stepped forward to claim they were Satoshi was the fact that he said he could offer cryptographic proof that he was bitcoin’s creator, as he was in possession of one of Satoshi’s private keys. In an interview with the BBC, Wright claimed that he would provide “extraordinary proof for an extraordinary claim,” signing a message using a key known to belong to Satoshi Nakamoto. In order to make his demonstration all the more credible, Wright flew bitcoin developer Gavin Andreesen out to London in order to witness the event. By all accounts, Andreesen was satisfied that Wright had successfully signed a message using keys that only Satoshi would possess, flying back to America under the impression that he had actually met Satoshi Nakamoto.
Unfortunately for Wright and his extraordinary claim, not all were satisfied with the evidence. Computer security expert Dan Kaminsky traced the signature used by Wright to a signature Satoshi used in 2009 as part of a public exhibition that bitcoin’s private key system actually worked, and which was actually recorded by Satoshi onto the bitcoin blockchain. This was soon confirmed by other bitcoin developers Mike Hearn, Peter Todd and Jeff Garzik, and the whole ordeal was quickly labeled a scam. Todd later said of Wright’s attempt to pull a fast one on Andreesen, “It would be like if I was trying to prove that I was George Washington and to do that provided a photocopy of the constitution and said, look, I have George Washington’s signature.”
Satoshi signed a transaction in 2009. Wright copied that specific signature and tried to pass it off as new. OpenSSL bugs interfered.
— Dan Kaminsky (@dakami) May 2, 2016
Wright soon backed away from his claims without ever fully admitting that he was simply the mastermind of a well-orchestrated hoax. Though he had managed to bamboozle several highly respected media sources, he never actually provided evidence that he was responsible for writing the bitcoin whitepaper, that he was in possession of any of Satoshi’s private keys, nor was he the owner of any of Satoshi’s vast bitcoin fortune. Wright soon took down all of his self-published references to being Satoshi Nakamoto, including his blog and website, but not before publishing this final message:
“I believed that I could do this. I believed that I could put the years of anonymity and hiding behind me. But, as the events of this week unfolded and I prepared to publish the proof of access to the earliest keys, I broke. I do not have the courage. I cannot. When the rumours began, my qualifications and character were attacked. When those allegations were proven false, new allegations have already begun. I know now that I am not strong enough for this. I know that this weakness will cause great damage to those that have supported me, and particularly to Jon Matonis and Gavin Andresen. I can only hope that their honour and credibility is not irreparably tainted by my actions. They were not deceived, but I know that the world will never believe that now. I can only say I’m sorry. And goodbye.”
A few other individuals of note who have been claimed by the media to be the creator of bitcoin include:
Elon Musk – multi-billionaire founder of Tesla and SpaceX
John Nash – American mathematician and Nobel Prize winner, his life story is the basis for the movie A Beautify Mind
Shinichi Mochizuki – Japanese mathematician who works with number theory and geometry
Neal King – software engineer listed on a patent containing a term oft used by Satoshi, “computationally impractical to reverse,” only 72 hours before the bitcoin.com domain was registered
Due to the summation and examination of the total body of evidence at hand, its highly unlikely that any of the individuals mentioned in this story are actually Satoshi Nakamoto. The real inventor of bitcoin remains a mystery, but that won’t stop us from coming up with our speculative candidates in our next article, so stay tuned as we wrap up the series with Part 3: Novel Theories in next week’s article!