The Race to Unmask Bitcoin's Inventor(s)

Satoshi Nakamoto founded the virtual currency, but nobody knows who that really is

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Everyone knows who founded Bitcoin but nobody knows who he is. Satoshi Nakamoto invented the virtual currency. He wrote a big paper and hundreds of posts on it and everything. But Nakamoto doesn't really exist, as Joshua Davis wrote in this week's New Yorker. "And yet Nakamoto himself was a cipher. Before the debut of Bitcoin there was no record of any coder with that name. He used an e-mail address and a Web site that were untraceable." Davis set out to find the real Nakamoto. He found the guy: Michael Clear. The problem: Clear denies it. And Fast Company's Adam Peneberg thinks he might have some ideas, pointing to three other possibilities. In the race to unmask the anonymous money's anonymous mastermind, here is what is know and where the speculation leads.

The Facts

  • Nakamoto's extensive postings are written in flawless English. 
  • Over the course of two years, he wrote about 80 thousand words and made only a few typos.
  • He covered topics ranging from theories of the Austrian economist Ludwin von Mises to the history of commodity markets.
  • When he created the first fifty bitcoins, he permanently embedded a brief line of text into the data "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks"--a reference to a Times of London article.
  • He used British spelling, and his comments tended to appear after normal business hours in the the United Kingdon.
  • In an initial post announcing Bitcoin, he employed American-style spelling. But after that he adopted a British style.
  • was created August 18, 2008 from Helsinki.

The Suspects

Michael Clear

The Evidence: He's British, good at computer science, and knows a thing or two about banking, as Davis explains.

In 2008 he was named the top computer science undergrad at Trinity. The next year he was hired by Allied Irish Banks to improve its currency-trading software and he co-authored an academic paper on pee-to-peer technology. The paper employed British spelling. Clear was well versed in economic, cryptography and peer-to-peer networks.

But he had been programming computers since he was ten and he could code in a variety of languages, including C++ the language of bitcoin.

And when directly asked he didn't say he wasn't Bitcoin's founder. "He laughed, but didn’t respond. There was an awkard silence," writes Davis.

The Contradictions: He flat out denies that he is Nakamoto. "I'm not Satoshi" he told Davis. "But even if I was I wouldn't tell you." He reaffirms his position in a posting on his web account at Trinity College Dublin, a direct response to the Davis outing.

Based on some comments from the New Yorker article, some people have suggested that I clarify some points. Hopefully this Plain Old HTML page will clear up some things, and not appear merely captious, since I did in fact enjoy the article.

Although I am flattered that Josh had reason to think I could be Satoshi, I am certainly the wrong person. 

Of course, Clear could be keeping up his charade, but he points to another possible suspect.

Vili Lehdonvirta

The Evidence: Michael Clear says so. After taking a look at the coding, Clear pointed Davis to Lehdonvirta. "I also think I can identify Satoshi. It is apparent that the person(s) behind the Satoshi name accumulated a not insignificant knowledge of applied cryptography," Clear wrote to Davis.

Lehdonvirta, a Finnish researcher a Helsinik Institute for Information Technology, had "researched Bitcoin and worried about it," writes Davis. He used to be a video game programmer and has studied virtual currencies. He also is actively involved in Elecrtonic Frontier Finland, an organization that advocates for online privacy.

The Contradictions: He denies it, laughing in Davis's face. And he doesn't exactly have the right background: no cryptography experience and no C++ skills.

Neal King

The Evidence: King has various patent applications for things that sound related to Bitcoin that Penenberg dug up.

Neal King (he also goes by Neal J. King from Munich, Germany) is listed on a number of patent applications, notably "UPDATING AND DISTRIBUTING ENCRYPTION KEYS" (#20100042841) and "CONTENTION ACCESS TO A COMMUNICATION MEDIUM IN A COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK" (#20090196306), both of which seem Bitcoin-y to me.

He also writes kind of like Nakamoto, notes Penenberg.

I read through his reviews, and his writing is excellent. Very clean. No typos. His sentences are elegant yet there are no extra words. The writing style reminds me of Satoshi Nakamoto's posts in the Bitcoin Forum minus British spellings, which, as I noted above, I believe is a canard.

The Contradictions: As per usual, he both denies and criticizes the endeavor. "He claims he 'had never heard of Bitcoin until this question came up,' and had to look up Bitcoin on Wikipedia, concluding that, 'It’s not a very good idea: Nakamoto’s algorithm is a solution in search of a problem,'" writes Penenberg.

Vladimir Oksman

The Evidence: Like King, he comes up on Bitcoin related patents. Also, Pennenberg thinks there's something odd on Google:

If you google "Vladimir Oksman bitcoin" you get a handful of results, including his LinkedIn profile, a patent application listing him as an inventor, and his resume. Yet "bitcoin" does not appear on any of these pages. When I checked cached versions of the first two results, it said, "These search terms are highlighted: vladimir oksman. These terms only appear in links pointing to this page: bitcoin."

The Contradictions: More denials! "I also messaged Vladamir Oksman through LinkedIn, and he replied with a terse "Wrong person.""

Charles Bry

The Evidence: Bry, too, is linked to bitcoin patents. But he also has some other telling connections. He traveled to Finland in late 2007, around the time Nakamoto registered the domain, explains Penenberg. "In addition, Bry, who is a senior system engineer, lists German, English, French, and Italian as languages he speaks, and went to college in Paris."

The Contradictions: "I hope I do not disappoint you too much by saying that I am not Satoshi Nakamoto, nor am I associated with him or with Bitcoin in any way. I believe I can state with absolute certainty the same of the other co-authors of our cryptography patents," he told Penenberg.

A denial doesn't preclude any of these suspects. The founder of bitcoin would deny his identity, as Clear explained. "Nakamoto’s identity shouldn’t matter. The system was built so that we don’t have to trust an individual, a company, or a government." Of course, that statement kind of makes it sound like Clear deeply understands bitcoin's underlying philosophy in a way only someone close to the project would.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.