Written by Nathaniel Nelson

Illustration redesigned by Devin Thorpe

Who is Satoshi Nakamoto?
Satoshi Nakamoto Mask

“I wear a mask. And that mask, it’s not to hide who I am, but to create what I am.” -Batman, Batman Vol 1 624

“Satoshi Nakamoto” is Found

A Newsweek journalist approaches a modest two-story home in the San Gabriel foothills of Temple City, California.

At the end of the driveway stands a man in “a rumpled T-shirt, old blue jeans and white gym socks, without shoes, like he has left the house in a hurry. His hair is unkempt, and he has the thousand-mile stare of someone who has gone weeks without sleep.” The man is slacked over, looking frustrated, perhaps annoyed. He’s accompanied by two police officers, whom he called over to assist with the pestering stranger. They ask the reporter why she’s here. She replies, “I would like to ask him about bitcoin. This man is Satoshi Nakamoto.” And, believe it or not, she was right. Right, and horribly wrong.

It’d been half a decade and still, the man who invented bitcoin had remained utterly, teasingly anonymous. Even his closest partners didn’t know a single personal detail about him and had only communicated via email. There were hidden clues, claims, and falsely identified figures who might have fit the bill, yet every trail seemed to come up empty. But here, now, Leah McGrath Goodman of Newsweek magazine was staring into the eyes of a man who seemed to check every box. Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, like the creator of bitcoin, is a reclusive math whiz. He’s temperamental, idiosyncratic, an ardent libertarian with an aversion to banks. He rarely speaks of himself or his work, to the point where even his own family members cannot prove, one way or another, whether he is or is not the famed inventor.

The parallels go on. The founder of bitcoin is known to have written in fluent English, but one of the outstanding mysteries about him is his varying use of American and British phraseology. All his life Dorian’s collected model trains, often from England, which could have influenced his language education as a youth. Dorian fell ill in 2011, just as the bitcoin founder went dark, never to be heard from again.

When the Newsweek reporter asks him about bitcoin in the driveway of his California home, Dorian looks down at the ground. “I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it,” he says. “It’s been turned over to other people. They are in charge of it now. I no longer have any connection.”

One Big Game of 20 Questions

This Newsweek reporter made a critical error, which has plagued the search for Satoshi since its outset: the interpretation of circumstantial evidence as fact. That because a man named Satoshi Nakamoto so closely resembles the founder of bitcoin, he, in fact, is the founder of bitcoin.

Plenty of other reporters before and after the piece was released in 2014 have fallen into the same trap. The search for Satoshi plays like one big game of 20 questions, where the pool of candidates begins as the entire world’s population and ends with one poor sap or another. It begins:

  • Do they possess the skill set of somebody who could have conceived of bitcoin?
  • Are they fluent in English?
  • Are they Japanese? If so, how are they so fluent in English?
  • Are they a citizen of a British commonwealth nation? If so, what about their character might suggest the reason for choosing a Japanese pseudonym?
  • Is there some indication that they write English, and code, in the idiosyncratic way Satoshi does, based on their other works?
  • Do they display reclusive behavior, or otherwise have reason to avoid public fame?

And so on. The problem with this game, of course, is that plenty of folks fit vaguely enough into this description. It’s how a former SpaceX intern was able to claim, to an audience of more than just himself, that Elon Musk “probably” invented bitcoin. Was this a publicity stunt? Probably. Was the logic of the argument sound? Absolutely not. Could anyone prove the author wrong?  No. Not even Musk himself, when he outright denied it.

Being as private as he was, Satoshi didn’t leave sufficient clues that would narrow down to a single person in the world. It’s why so many other names have been associated with the founder.

Won’t the Real Satoshi Please Stand Up?

Craig Wright in a chair

In May 2016 an Australian named Craig Wright told the BBC he would be offering “extraordinary” evidence to prove, once and for all, that Satoshi Nakamoto was him. He was going to move coin from one of bitcoin’s earliest blocks, known to have belonged to Satoshi’s account.

Wright’s claim had some backing, with independent investigations by both Wired magazine and Gizmodo providing initial, albeit circumstantial, evidence. Gavin Anderesen, perhaps Satoshi’s closest partner during development of the platform, was said to have believed it, as well as other prominent figures in the field. Just as many were, on the other hand, not convinced. When Wright’s “proof” was published on his blog, researchers and media outlets–including Wired magazine–smelled a hoax.

As recently as November 2018, Wright has continued to refer to himself as the real Satoshi. In an interview with the BBC in 2016, he claimed he would finally demonstrate “extraordinary proof” of his identity. He then failed to do so, producing neither proof that he wrote the original white paper, nor the one key to it all: Satoshi’s original private key, associated with the genesis block.

Various members of the field, as well as journalists from The New Yorker, Vice, Fast Company, and other outlets, have nominated candidates for the title, though each subject is as vaguely as plausible as the next, yet each writer more confident in their evidence than the last.

Two names that have shone above the rest are Hal Finney and Nick Szabo–individuals more inherently qualified for the title than the grad students and darknet criminals that have been dug up for stories past. Finney is an early pioneer of cryptography, and the first person to use and work on the Bitcoin platform (after Nakamoto himself, assuming they’re different people). A Forbes article noted that Finney lived within walking distance of Dorian Nakamoto’s California home and that his writings closely resembled Satoshi’s. After meeting with Finney himself, the article’s author concluded that he’d got the wrong man.

Nick Szabo

Nick Szabo had proposed a decentralized digital currency called “bit gold” a decade before the Bitcoin white paper was published. Though never put into practice, bit gold is credited as having laid much of the groundwork for Bitcoin. Most of the evidence that points to Nick boils down to how eminently qualified he is, to have been the inventor of such a platform. Szabo has denied being Satoshi, but the links have become so commonplace that he has become, as he says, “used to it.” Unlike Dorian Nakamoto, who is openly hostile to media attention, and Craig Wright, who seems desperate for it, Szabo is already perhaps the most well-known cryptographic scholar in the world. We might assume, then, that he possesses less motivation than others to lie about his identity.

Why Identifying Satoshi Matters

There are obvious reasons why Satoshi Nakamoto wouldn’t want to out himself. From the beginning, he has rejected the consequences of being under a spotlight. In an email to Gavin Anderesen on April 26th, 2011, he wrote: “I wish you wouldn’t keep talking about me as a mysterious shadowy figure. The press just turns that into a pirate currency angle.” Media harassment isn’t just a theoretical problem for him–individuals who aren’t even Satoshi, like Dorian Nakamoto, have already suffered as a result of being connected with the label.

The more interesting question to ask is: why do we care so much about outing him? Aside from the mystery and intrigue, is there a point to all this? Bitcoin will likely survive past Satoshi’s death (assuming that hasn’t happened already), whether his identity is revealed or not. And unlike governments, banks or other centralized institutions, Bitcoin was designed specifically to operate in lieu of human oversight and intervention, rendering Satoshi’s continued role in the project unnecessary.

However, there is one technical, non-subjective reason why Satoshi’s identity matters. Having mined many of the earliest Bitcoin blocks (including the very first), estimates have pegged his holdings at somewhere between 600,000 and one million coins. At the time of this writing, that’d translate to about three billion dollars.

It is not his personal wealth which matters to the rest of us, but how that wealth affects the future of the bitcoin market. Money is power, and you can count on one hand the number of people who own more than 100,000 bitcoin. To move even a fraction of all that at once can cause serious disruption to the market.

Even worse is the prospect that it may never move at all. Only 21 million bitcoin can ever exist in the world, and Satoshi possesses between three to five percent of that total. It’s all tied to his private key, and only he has access to that key. Should he die, his fortune may go with him.

Featured Header Image Source: JUNKEE

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