The bitcoin economy has become a lively and ever-more crowded place since the first batch of 50 bitcoins – the “genesis block” – was computed into existence on Jan. 3, 2009. But one quiet corner remains: the spot set aside for bitcoin’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto.
As the bitcoin currency approaches its fifth birthday, no one yet has managed to pin down the identity of its parent. But it’s not for lack of trying.
Searching for Satoshi
Is/was Satoshi a real person? Was he (she?!) even Japanese, as the name suggests? Or was “Satoshi” actually a group operating under an invented name? No one knows for sure (or, if they do, they’re not saying.) But here are the generally recognized facts:
- Someone using the name “Satoshi Nakamoto” first describes the Bitcoin protocol on a cryptography listserv at metzdowd.com on Nov. 1, 2008. He includes a link to a paper titled “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” The paper is posted at http://www.bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf (where it remains posted today).
- The paper lists Satoshi’s email address as email@example.com. (Writing in the New Yorker in October 2011, Joshua David described both the email address and http://www.bitcoin.org web address as “untraceable.”)
- The bitcoin genesis block is mined on Jan. 3, 2009.
- Satoshi announces the release of bitcoin on the cryptography list on Jan. 9, 2009. In addition to providing a link and instructions for running the bitcoin client, BITCOIN.EXE, Satoshi notes, “You can get coins by getting someone to send you some, or turn on Options->Generate Coins to run a node and generate blocks. I made the proof-of-work difficulty ridiculously easy to start with, so for a little while in the beginning a typical PC will be able to generate coins in just a few hours. It’ll get a lot harder when competition makes the automatic adjustment drive up the difficulty.”
- Satoshi’s last post to the metzdowd.com list appears on Jan. 25, 2009.
- Satoshi’s last message on the Bitcoin Forum is posted at 6:22:33 pm GMT on Dec. 12, 2010. (Gavin Andresen, a Bitcoin Foundation board member and lead developer for bitcoin, reportedly last heard from Satoshi in early 2011.)
Beyond that, would-be solvers of Satoshi Nakamoto’s real identity have pointed to various clues over time: Despite the Japanese name, Satoshi writes in “flawless English,” David points out. In some posts, Satoshi uses British-style spelling (ie, “optimisation”) but in others, he chooses US style (ie, “criticized”). The Bitcoin code features a tag that refers to a Jan. 3, 2009, Times of London headline. The bitcoin.org site was created by a user in Helsinki. “Satoshi” in Japanese means “clear-thinking” or “wise”, “naka” means “inside” and “moto” means “foundation.”
Let the speculation begin
Since Satoshi’s disappearance from the online bitcoin community, speculation has abounded about who he could be.
In his New Yorker article, David theorizes Satoshi could be British computer scientist Michael Clear. Clear denies it. (To respond to the rumors, Clear posted a clarification page online, and recently updated it to add a note commenting that some of the libertarian philosophies surrounding cryptocurrencies “make me feel uncomfortable.”)
Clear, meanwhile, has postulated that Satoshi might be Vili Lehdonvirta, a Finnish IT researcher who’s active in the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy organization for online privacy. Like Clear, Lehdonvirta dismisses the possibility, “laughing” at the suggestion.
NYU journalism professor Adam L. Penenberg followed up David’s article with some speculation of his own in Fast Company. Searching for terminology and turns of phrase similar to those used in Satoshi’s original paper, Penenberg tracks down a 2008 patent application related to encryption keys. By “one hell of a coincidence,” he writes, the patent application was filed just three days before the domain bitcoin.org was registered. That leads Penenberg to conclude that Satoshi could in fact be one of the three inventors named on the patent application: Neal King, Vladimir Oksman or Charles Bry. Bry responds, “I am not Satoshi Nakamoto.” “Wrong person,” Oksman tells him. King says he “never heard of Bitcoin until this question came up.”
Quietly sitting on a fortune?
New Satoshi rumors and speculation continue to pop up regularly, generally becoming more numerous when his unique digital currency rises in market value or makes big headlines. While not attempting to guess who Satoshi might be, security researcher and Certimix.com CEO Sergio Demian Lerner recently posted an analysis on his blog describing how he believes the bitcoin creator is probably sitting on a fortune of one million BTC … well over $100 million (US) as of April 2013.
“It is impressive, isn’t it?” Lerner asks on the Bitcoin Forum. “That’s a good reason to stay anonymous!”
Perhaps, if any of those one million bitcoins that have been quietly sitting unused for so long shows up in a blockchain transaction, new clues could eventually help identify who Satoshi Nakamoto is once and for all.