THE FAIL ISSUE
The week of June 14, 2015
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The misidentification of Satoshi Nakamoto

By Kevin Collier

After more than a year of hiatus, Newsweek needed to resurrect its U.S. print version with a bang. On March 6, 2014, it hit newsstands with a blockbuster cover: Reporter Leah McGrath Goodman claimed to have figured out the identity of “Satoshi Nakamoto,” the elusive founder of Bitcoin and often thought to be the pseudonym of one or several ambitious programmers.

According to Newsweek, Satoshi was genuinely named Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto: a 64-year-old family man living outside of Los Angeles, as math-savvy as Bitcoin’s creator would have to be, who shyly avoided the limelight once it became clear he’d created a monster.

There was just one small problem: In no uncertain terms, Nakamoto told the Associated Press later that very evening that he was not the man everyone’s looking for and that he first heard about the digital currency when Newsweek came knocking. (To be fair, the real Satoshi would probably say something like that.)

Newsweek never retracted the story, but its online version is now amended with a statement from Dorian, who categorically denies being Bitcoin’s inventor, and who once promised to sue—though it’s unclear what became of that lawsuit. (Dorian’s lawyer, Ethan Kirschner, didn’t respond to the Kernel’s request for an update.)

Either way, this was just the biggest of many attempts from the mainstream press to engage in Bitcoin’s oldest, most maddening endeavor: guessing at, and refuting, possible Satoshis. Speculation has ranged so widely that I’m not even going to pretend this is comprehensive history, or that the cited sources are the first time they appeared anywhere on the Internet. Instead, it’s a loose one, a mere cornucopia of fake Satoshis that people believed in at one point or another.

Nov. 1, 2008

Bitcoin and Satoshi came on the scene together when a paper called “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” appeared on a cryptography listserv, signed with his name. “None of the list’s veterans had heard of him,” Wired wrote three years later. “Google searches for his name turned up no relevant information; it was clearly a pseudonym.”

Feb. 11, 2009

A user identifying himself as Satoshi Nakamoto announced on the P2P Foundation message board introduced Bitcoin. His profile listed his location as Japan and his age as 38. He would go on to occasionally communicate with other users, though only sporadically, and he never shared personal details. The fact that he seemed to speak in Britishisms, though his original paper reflected a more American style, helped the theory that “Satoshi Nakamoto” couldn’t be his real name.

Feb. 27, 2011

Bitcoiners, still totally in the dark about his identity, joke that “Satoshi Nakamoto” is a clever combination of the four Asian tech giants that created him: Samsung, Toshiba, Nakamichi, Motorola.

Oct. 10, 2011

In one of the first definitive looks at Bitcoin, New Yorker writer Joshua Davis went to the Crypto 2011 conference. Noting Satoshi’s penchant for British phrasing, Davis identified nine British and Irish lecturers that could fit the bill. He then narrowed his list—some had little software experience, some dismissed Bitcoin—before he settled on Trinity College’s Michael Clear, then 23, who pointedly avoided Davis’s question of whether he was Satoshi.

Later, Clear said he’d been joking; of course he wasn’t Bitcoin’s founder. But he emailed Davis with a great lead: “I also think I can identify Satoshi.” He named Finnish programer Vili Lehdonvirta, who promptly denied it.

Oct. 11, 2011

The next day, Fast Company’s Adam Penenberg ran something of a rebuttal to Davis, who assumed a popular theory: Not only that Satoshi Nakamoto is a pseudonym, it’s a clue. Satoshi can be translated from Japanese as “clear-thinking,” Naka as “inside,” and moto as “foundation.” (Clear thinking inside the foundation! That must somehow be a person!)

Penenberg found an obscure encryption software patent that oddly contained some of Satoshi’s phrasing. The names on that patent were Neal King, Vladimir Oksman, and Charles Bry. Oksman and Bry both flatly denied it. King said he “had never heard of Bitcoin until this question came up.”

August 2012

A discussion at the since-shuttered, Bitcoin-funded site bitquestion.com (archived) speculated Satoshi was actually Jed McCaleb. McCaleb founded the once-great Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox, which he sold in 2011. Besides, the theory went, McCaleb was a big fan of peer-to-peer software, since he created the file-sharing site eDonkey 2000. And to top it off, finally, he’s a total Japanophile, at least according to the breathless bitquestion theorist. How could it not be him?

January 2013

Redditor youarenofreddurstsir, touting advantages like “I am new to Bitcoin” and “I have Asperger’s,” put forth an elaborate theory on Reddit’s r/Bitcoin. He decided that the real Satoshi must be American, must be male, must have a certain kind of résumé, and must know a handful of particular big names in cryptography. Therefore, he must be acclaimed University of North Carolina computer scientist Michael Reiter, who fits in each of those four categories.

March 15, 2013

A commenter on bitcointalk.org named rpietila produced the saddest theory: Satoshi was Len Sassaman, a Belgian systems engineer who committed suicide July 3, 2011, about six months after the last known communication from Satoshi. Maybe the CIA was involved, rpietila suggested.

May 17, 2013

Ted Nelson, a 75-year-old futurist who in 1963 coined the term “hypertext,” posted a rambling YouTube video titled “I Think I Know Who Satoshi Is.” His answer was straight out of left field: renowned number theorist Shinichi Mochizuki, who met the requisites of being Japanese-American, not young, and brilliant at math. The connection seems to end there.

Oct. 26, 2013

Security researcher Dustin Trammell, known as a libertarian and an early Bitcoin adopter who emailed back and forth with Satoshi in the currency’s infancy, wrote a blog post called “I Am Not Satoshi.” In it, he promised he hadn’t actually been emailing himself.

Nov. 24, 2013

Two Israeli scientists produce a study of the history of Bitcoin transactions and come to a startling hypothesis of M. Night Shyamalan–level irony. Satoshi is actually Ross Ulbricht, who had recently been arrested as the kingpin behind the Bitcoin-enabled black market site Silk Road.

They retracted that idea the next day.

Dec. 1, 2013

A blog called Like in a Mirror: Thoughts on Computing publishes its first and last post. It describes the author’s elaborate process to track down Satoshi via his paper, “searching the internet for highly unusual turns of phrase and vocabulary patterns.” If the author was searching the entire Internet for a writerly match, the anonymous blogger’s choice was uninspired: Nick Szabo, an engineer, writer, and creator of Bitcoin precursor bit gold.

Szabo himself wrote in awe of Satoshi back in 2011, indicating he either wasn’t Satoshi or wanted to pretend he wasn’t. He did half-joke the real Satoshi could be Wei Dai or Hal Finney, who respectively authored their own Bitcoin precursors.

Jan. 21, 2014

During a panel at Munich’s DLD14 conference, a bald white German identifying himself as something like “Chris Belzingam” (it’s hard to hear exactly what he says) outed himself as the “founder” of Bitcoin. “I wanted to build up an answer to our society and to the financial markets,” he said. “I was totally angry against our banking system and I lost a lot of money,” he explained. The crowd applauded him, perhaps gullibly, but the panel openly laughed at him. It’s not clear he was aware of the name “Satoshi.”

March 6, 2014

Despite a well-reported Newsweek story identifying Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto as the Satoshi Nakamoto, plus what seemed a de facto admission from Bitcoin developer Gavin Andresen, Newsweek’s argument seems to fall apart, and the magazine becomes a punchline among bitcoiners. Dorian later crowdfunds a lawsuit to sue Newsweek.

March 7, 2014

The Satoshi Nakamoto everybody knew from message boards appears to resurrect an old account simply to deny being Nakamoto.

Nov. 12, 2014

In his book Bitcoin: The Future of Money?, journalist Dominic Frisby devotes a chapter to Satoshi. He studies all kinds of details surrounding Satoshi’s existence, like the times of day he would post on forums, and concludes that he’s probably Nick Szabo.

Of course, there’s the problem of Szabo denying it.

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May 15, 2015

Author Nathaniel Popper promotes his new book Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money by printing an excerpt in the New York Times. He’s pretty sure Satoshi is Szabo. Popper doesn’t have any hard evidence that the “large bearded man” actually created Bitcoin, but he’s got plenty of the anecdotal kind. Szabo is private, possesses a towering mathematical intellect, and has worked with Bitcoin companies since Satoshi disappeared from the Internet. Most importantly, researchers at England’s Aston University compared Szbao’s handwriting samples with Satoshi and found an overwhelming match.

On the other hand, Popper also quotes Szabo denying being Satoshi both in a dinner party and in a followup email.

May 15, 2015

After reading Popper’s excerpt, Gizmodo concludes that Nick Szabo Is probably Satoshi Nakamoto.

~2011-present

People make dumb jokes about outingthe real Satoshi.”

A version of this story was originally published by the Daily Dot on March 7, 2014.

Illustration by Jason Reed