Desperately Seeking Satoshi: The Continuing Quest for Bitcoin’s Creator

This story, about the continuing Satoshi Nakamoto mystery, is part of BREAKER’s celebration of the original bitcoin white paper, published ten years ago this week.

Here are the clues: The person or people known as “Satoshi Nakamoto” are fluent in British English. They’ve used the phrase “bloody hard” at least once but in their first post opted for American dialect. They deeply understand cryptography, peer-to-peer networking, and the programming language C++. They are disillusioned by big banking and the related bailouts, as evidenced in a bit of code embedded into bitcoin’s genesis block reading “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks,” a headline from the Times of London. They stopped sending emails as Satoshi in 2011.

That same year, journalists started to search for the man behind the moniker. From tracking down Michael Clear to Craig Wright, investigations evolved from following a seemingly offhand assumption—Satoshi will certainly be at this small cryptography conference, a New Yorker writer mused—to an almost grueling profile published in the London Review of Books. The search for Satoshi ultimately proved asymptotic. The closer investigators seemed to get to identifying bitcoin’s creator, the more it seemed like the true identity (or identities) would forever elude them. All the while, curious onlookers and reporters floated names like Gavin Andresen, one of the early bitcoin core developers to whom Satoshi passed the torch, and a quiet Japanese mathematician called Shinichi Mochizuki.

A deep interest in privacy prevailed among those interviewed. Most of the cryptographers and engineers reporters spoke to weren’t looking for glory and didn’t seem keen to claim it, even if their contributions to bitcoin and other projects were significant. In this regard, Wright is a standout. He flirted openly with fame, at once playing coy and flaunting hubris as bitcoin’s great creator.

Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever they are, accrued close to a million bitcoin during the first year of the blockchain’s life. Currently, one million bitcoin is worth over $6 billion. If the real Satoshi has that much money stashed away somewhere, it’s understandable that they would wish to remain anonymous.

The following investigators sought him out nonetheless. Here are the journeys they took, beginning in 2011 and ending at a time that, as yet, is undetermined.

The Crypto-Currency: Bitcoin and Its Mysterious Inventor,” The New Yorker, October 10, 2011

The New Yorker’s 2011 quest for Satoshi starts with editor Nicholas Thompson (now the editor-in-chief at Wired) asking writer Joshua Davis what he knows about bitcoin. (“I knew very little,” Davis told BREAKER.) Davis and Thompson get to talking and decide on the angle for a story—figuring out who created the thing.

"There's no way of knowing unless the person identifies themselves and can prove it."

So Davis heads to the Crypto 2011 conference, where he pays for a Howard Johnson’s hotel room in Anaheim in bitcoin and meets Michael Clear, a 23-year-old studying cryptography at Dublin’s Trinity College and fluent in C++. Clear laughs when Davis asks whether he’s Satoshi, as does Vili Lehdonvirta, the man Clear figures might fit the bill. Lehndovirta further nullifies his Satoshi candidacy when he shows his support of leaving a “back door” to bitcoin so law enforcement can step in, something the libertarian Satoshi would almost certainly shun. Davis ultimately settles with Clear’s point about bitcoin—that its code is open to anyone to review, that its creator doesn’t control it, and so the identity of its creator doesn’t matter.

Today, Davis is not convinced that anyone will find the real Satoshi. “There’s no way of knowing unless the person identifies themselves and can prove it,” he told BREAKER. “At the time [after the New Yorker report] it seemed like, okay, maybe at a certain point he or she or they will come out and say, ‘Hey, we did this.’ Now, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that it won’t happen.”

Related: A Comprehensive Guide to Crypto References in Pop Culture

As an aside, that Howard Johnson’s hotel room Davis paid for in 2011 cost $150, when one bitcoin was around $4. At bitcoin’s peak, that would room would have been worth about $750,000. “To be honest, it was such a wonderful trip for me and my daughter. I took her to Disneyland, and we had so much fun jumping up and down on the beds in the Howard Johnson’s and went to a pirate-themed dinner show,” he said. “You couldn’t pay me a million dollars to take that away.”

The Bitcoin Crypto-Currency Mystery Reopened,” Fast Company, October 11, 2011

Fast Company’s Adam Penenberg isn’t satisfied with what he sees as Davis’s “implication” that Clear is Nakamoto. So he embarks on an investigation of his own, starting with a textual analysis of Satoshi’s writing. This leads Penenberg to a patent application from August 15, 2008, three days before was registered. The inventors on the patent include Neal King, Charles Bry, and Vladimir Oksman, each of whom boast intriguing connections to bitcoin. But King and Bry outright deny any connections to the cryptocurrency, while Penenberg is unable to get in touch with the right Oksman (he reaches out to a different man with the same name on LinkedIn). Penenberg accepts that he probably hasn’t found Satoshi, but feels that he’s gotten a step or two closer than Davis.

“At first, I wasn’t going to publish anything, because I couldn’t prove anything,” Penenberg told BREAKER in an email. “Then The New Yorker came out with a story claiming they’d identified Satoshi Nakamoto. I published mine as an alternate theory, believing I had stronger evidence… Unfortunately, my article has been lumped in with the others, like Newsweek’s disastrous boondoggle, the New Yorker, et al.”

Who does Penenberg think Satoshi is now? “No guesses,” he wrote. “Could be several people—a collective, if you will—which would be an ideal metaphor, given the peer-to-peer foundation of Bitcoin. If you figure it out tell him/her/them I have some questions.”

Who is Satoshi Nakamoto?! Let’s find out!” thread, January 15, 2012

A thread starts crowdsourcing answers in January 2012. “Hello guys and girls,” author “MonkeyWoman” begins. “There’s one question that I can’t get out of my head. A guy starts a huge revolution, and then disappears?” MonkeyWoman then begins breaking down Satoshi’s pseudonym, removing consonants and sounding out the vowels: “aoi, aaoo”—a howl into the digital abyss.

“Could be several people—a collective, if you will—which would be an ideal metaphor, given the peer-to-peer foundation of Bitcoin."

Others answer the howl. “My bet is that he/she is just a middle aged American with a anime [sic] fetish,” writes “DinkyToyz.” Others suggest Satoshi is a group, not an individual. They cite the Japanese name and the German email provider. One suggests it’s “the guy running Mt. Gox.” It becomes clear that many have read both The New Yorker and Fast Company accounts, as “that Irish guy” keeps coming up. He’s probably a member of the very forum where this thread is taking place, floats a commenter who says Satoshi is “known to use forums.” Or maybe, writes “virtualx” nearly two years after the initial post, “Satoshi Nakamoto is an advanced Turing machine.”

The thread ends on September 16, 2014, at 3:34 p.m. Bitcointalk member “Skrillex” writes, “This is totally unnecessary, Satoshi must remain anonymous.”

There Is a ‘Very Surprising’ Connection Between Bitcoin’s Creator and the Alleged Founder of the Silk Road,” Business Insider, November 25, 2013

After the arrest of Ross Ulbricht, the Silk Road’s operator and pseudonymous Dread Pirate Roberts, Israeli mathematicians Dorit Ron and Adi Shamir trace his bitcoin transactions—all the way back to Satoshi Nakamoto. “The short path we found…suggests (but does not prove) the existence of a surprising link between the two mysterious figures of the Bitcoin community, Satoshi Nakamoto and DPR,” Ron and Shamir write. “We are sure that analyzing this figure will start a very vigorous debate in the Bitcoin community.” The mathematicians retract their claim days later.

The Face Behind Bitcoin,” Newsweek, March 6, 2014

“Satoshi” calls the cops before Newsweek author Leah McGrath Goodman can talk to him. Unlike Davis and Penenberg before her, Goodman dismisses Satoshi-as-pseudonym and goes searching for a man with the real name instead. This brings her to the San Gabriel foothills of Los Angeles, where 64-year-old Satoshi Nakamoto, known as Dorian Nakamoto, leads a modest life. But Dorian won’t speak to her. Instead, she has to rely on calls to family members. “He’s a brilliant man,” Dorian’s brother tells her, later adding, “My brother is an asshole.” Gavin Andresen, who worked closely with Satoshi in 2010-2011, never heard his voice, but his assessment of Satoshi’s attitude tracks at least loosely with “asshole.”

Overall, Goodman makes numerous connections. Dorian has reason to be mad at banks, as his home was foreclosed on after he fell behind on mortgage payments. He espouses libertarian philosophies, his writing is similar to Satoshi’s known written works, his age lines up with the way Satoshi writes code, he’s a loner, and he has the skill-set. The deep dive into the real Nakamoto ends with a statement written by the man himself: “I did not create, invent or otherwise work on Bitcoin. I unconditionally deny the Newsweek report.” The Newsweek report is widely discredited in the coming days.

Nakamoto’s Neighbor: My Hunt for Bitcoin’s Creator Led to a Paralyzed Crypto Genius,” Forbes, March 25, 2014

Goodman’s flawed investigation turns out to be good for something. It elicits an email tip that points Forbes journalist Andy Greenberg in the direction of Hal Finney, Dorian Nakamoto’s paralyzed neighbor who lives with ALS. However, unlike Goodman, Greenberg believes Finney when he says he didn’t invent bitcoin.

"He denies having any prior knowledge of the nearby Dorian Nakamoto, leaving him with no connection to the pseudonym."

Finney lives just a few blocks from Dorian Nakamoto, and Greenberg begins to believe that the former could have served as the latter’s ghostwriter. But all is debunked in due time. Though Finney was known to have carried around a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in high school and was an early and respected cypherpunk, even creating a proof-of-work system that looked like a direct precursor to bitcoin’s, the rest of the facts don’t line up. Finney isn’t fluent in C++ (he writes in C), and he denies having any prior knowledge of the nearby Dorian Nakamoto, leaving him with no connection to the pseudonym. Finney passes away from ALS months after the Forbes report emerges.

Decoding the Enigma of Satoshi Nakamoto and the Birth of Bitcoin,” The New York Times, May 15, 2015

Nathaniel Popper gets pulled into the Satoshi mystery through writing a book about bitcoin. The more people he speaks to, the more he starts to believe that Nick Szabo—the cryptographer behind decentralized, digital currency Bit Gold, which he created in 1998—fits the profile. Popper examines Szabo’s various denials about his supposed secret identity, finally receiving one in person at a Lake Tahoe bitcoin gathering in March 2014. “Well, I will say this, in the hope of setting the record straight,” he tells Popper. “I’m not Satoshi, and I’m not a college professor [referring to another rumor going around about Szabo’s identity]. In fact, I never was a college professor.”

But the case for Szabo as Satoshi remains convincing. First off, there are many parallels between bitcoin and Bit Gold. Both, for instance, require multiple computers using significant energy to solve cryptographic puzzles that verify new coins. Shortly before the debut of bitcoin, Popper discovers, Szabo brought up Bit Gold on his personal blog and asked whether readers would “help him code one up.” A researcher at a British university compares the writing of multiple Satoshi suspects and finds Szabo’s to be the most convincing match. And, like the rest of the Satoshi possibles, Szabo leans libertarian. Today, he remains among the most hypothesized suspects.

"My short answer is that Nick Szabo still seems to me to be as good a candidate as any."

“My short answer is that Nick Szabo still seems to me to be as good a candidate as any,” Popper said in answer to BREAKER’s query over email. “Though I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be someone none of us have been looking at, or a group that could or could not include Szabo.”

Bitcoin’s Creator Satoshi Nakamoto Is Probably This Unknown Australian Genius,” Wired, December 8, 2015

Greenberg’s investigation didn’t end at Forbes. Now at Wired, he joins up with Gwern Branwen, a pseudonymous dark web analyst, to look at Craig Wright, a man who still won’t confirm or deny his Satoshi status. The evidence is compelling. For starters, unlike anyone else who’s been fingered so far, Wright is the only one to have owned up to it—in leaked meeting transcripts and drafts of signed documents. When Wired contacts Wright, the email reply comes from an IP address controlled by the same service Satoshi had used to introduce bitcoin.

Several other clues connect the Australian libertarian coder to the pseudonym, including his impressive bitcoin stash, but Greenberg and Branwen discover that most could have been skillfully planted. The leaked documents could be fake, the “telling” posts in which Wright hinted at bitcoin’s unveiling could have been written after the fact. Sure, Wright reacted strongly to the Newsweek investigation (“I am not found and I do not want to be,” he wrote) and regularly drops clues about a secret identity. But many of his claims—like those referring to his super-computing abilities and academic prowess—have been found false.

The Satoshi Affair,” The London Review of Books, June 30, 2016

Shortly after Wired’s piece runs, police chase Wright out of his apartment. He makes it to his building’s swimming pool, hides in the bathroom, and finally manages to get into his car and disappear into traffic. Next stop, Auckland, New Zealand, then Manila, then London.

Why would a man with nothing to hide take such lengths to avoid the police? Because the man does have something to hide, or so believes Stefan Matthews. Matthews insists that Wright showed him an original draft of the bitcoin white paper back in 2008 when they were working together on an online gambling site. Matthews had since become friendly with Robert MacGregor, CEO of a Canadian money transfer firm called nTrust. Matthews persuades MacGregor to make a deal with Wright, one in which a subsidiary of nTrust, nCrypt, would gain the rights to not only Wright’s new inventions, but also to his life story.

That’s where author Andrew O’Hagan comes in. A lawyer emails him saying his client had “acquired life story rights…from the true person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.” That client is MacGregor, and that story ultimately turns into about 35,000 words in which the seeming veracity of Wright’s Satoshi claims fluctuate wildly.

Wright says, “We all have a narcissistic hubris.”

O’Hagan starts by delving into Wright’s past, in which he played chess at age “three or four” with a father who, says Wright, “walloped” him if he made a wrong move. Wright also dressed like a samurai in high school—an early nod to Japanese culture. He tells O’Hagan why he chose the name Satoshi Nakamoto (Nakamoto comes from an 18th Century iconoclast, and Satoshi because it means “ash,” which both alludes to the rebirth of the phoenix and Pikachu’s cartoon companion). Wright says, “We all have a narcissistic hubris.” He mentions talks with Hashcash creator Adam Back “whilst setting up the first trials of the bitcoin protocol.” He writes out numerous equations for O’Hagan, ones meant to illustrate how he came up with bitcoin. All the while, O’Hagan watches as a whole company, nCrypt, is built on and around Wright, hoping to cash in on a goldmine of blockchain patents from the brilliant mind behind its very first application. All of this suggests others, including Wright, believe he’s a big deal.

But O’Hagan continually faces challenges in trying to accept Wright as Satoshi. Though Wright has signed a deal to “come out as Satoshi” to the men who own his life rights, neither of those men have the proof necessary to back up Wright’s claim. Additional red flags emerge, including missing emails between Wright and his now deceased partner, the man who worked with him to “create bitcoin,” Dave Kleiman. Those emails, it seems, could have helped prove or disprove Wright’s supposed identity, but not any more. There are also odd, apparent gaps in Wright’s technical knowledge that both his employees and colleagues discuss with O’Hagan. And Wright’s current bitcoin holdings never quite seem to line up with the amount often attributed to Satoshi.

“A reporter was once a person who could rely on visible evidence, recordings, notes, statements of fact, and I gathered these assiduously, but this was a story that challenged the foundations on which reporting depends,” O’Hagan writes.

As O’Hagan continues to ask McGregor and Matthews to provide proof-of-Satoshi, they keep coming up short. Then one day Wright invites O’Hagan over to witness the Holy Grail—him signing with the private key from one of Satoshi’s original blocks. He does so, it appears, leaving behind a digital message reading, “Here I am, Andrew.” But is that really proof? It’s hard for O’Hagan to tell.

The “proof sessions” continue—in front of Gavin Andresen, in front of reporters, and to the public in May 2016. Then there’s the fallout. Detractors emerge, having noticed that Wright had “fudged” parts of his proof-of-Satoshi and had even copied and pasted some of it from a “publicly available signature associated with Nakamoto.” Wright again refuses to provide definitive proof. He loses his deal with nCrypt and retreats back into the shadows. O’Hagan writes his story about a man who may or may not have been inspired by Pokémon when coming up with the name of bitcoin’s creator.

The CIA ‘Can Neither Confirm Nor Deny’ It Has Documents on Satoshi Nakamoto,” Motherboard, June 14, 2018

About two years later, Motherboard writer Daniel Oberhaus reaches out to the CIA. He files a Freedom of Information Act request for “internal emails containing Satoshi Nakamoto’s name.” The CIA responds. It “can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the requested documents.”

The investigation continues…