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In search of Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin's mysterious creator

In May 2008, Nakamoto published an online paper outlining how the cryptocurrency would work. Then he vanished.

Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? This week, he is a computer scientist from Australia. In 2014, he was a Japanese-American man living in Los Angeles. In 2013, a Japanese mathematician. In 2011, a Finnish sociologist . . .

Satoshi Nakamoto is a pseudonym. Eight years ago, he or she (or they) invented the digital currency Bitcoin and then disappeared. To some, he’s a hero, and to the tech press he’s their great white whale. Discovering the Bitcoin creator’s real identity has become what finding Lord Lucan was to the British tabloids in the 1970s.

In May 2008, Nakamoto published an online paper that outlined how Bitcoin would work, then released the software needed to run it the following year. A completely decentralised “cryptocurrency”, Bitcoin is the perfect product for an early-21st-century ideology that thrives online, that is technologically hyper-literate and radically libertarian. It is designed to avoid any kind of central control. New bitcoins are generated by solving difficult cryptographic calculations that are “computationally expensive” and occur at a predictable rate, unlike the money that a central bank prints.

So, trusting Bitcoin does not involve trusting people. It relies on rational mathematics and computer code that are immune from political interference. Bitcoin is an ideal currency for buying something (legal or not) without anyone finding out.

This aspect was deliberately designed: Nakamoto spent a year or so corresponding with other experts in the nascent Bitcoin community, explaining his philosophical reasons for wanting to create a kind of digital gold standard. Then Nakamoto vanished and that community, obsessed with freedom from authority, has been trying to find its founding father ever since.

There are some obvious candidates. Hal Finney, a games developer-turned-cryptography advocate, was the first person to receive bitcoins (from Nakamoto, in a test transaction). He died from complications related to motor neurone disease in 2014.

Nick Szabo, a cryptographer and legal scholar, had worked on an idea that was similar to Bitcoin a few years earlier called “bit gold”. Others involved in Bitcoin in its early stages, such as Gavin Andresen, the chief scientist at the Bitcoin Foundation (which, if Nakamoto is Jesus, would be the Vatican), have also been suspected.

These suspicions are based on anecdotal evidence – such as Nakamoto’s use of British English idioms such as “bloody” – but rarely meet the standards expected by cryptographers. Confidence can lead to embarrassment, as Newsweek found in 2014, when it turned the world’s media on to a retired computer scientist called Dorian Nakamoto, basing its efforts on little more than coincidences.

This brings us to Craig Wright, who is by all accounts a politically and intellectually appropriate candidate. Is he Nakamoto? Maybe. There is only one kind of proof that most experts will accept: a signature, encrypted using Nakamoto’s private key and associated with the “genesis block”, the first bitcoins “mined” (or created) when Nakamoto’s computer was the only one on the network.

Wright says that he is Nakamoto and wrote a blogpost in which he produced a signature (he also presented evidence to some journalists and Bitcoin experts in private). However, almost as soon as the headlines announced that Nakamoto had been found, many in the community dismissed the evidence as faked. Sceptics speculated whether Wright’s claim was part of a larger scheme involving his business and tax issues.

Regardless, Wright says that he will provide more conclusive proof soon. The Bitcoin community, which has factions and disagreements aplenty, looks to Nakamoto’s early posts and emails when arguments break out. But what makes the story so compelling for journalists is that the mystery makes no sense.

Satoshi Nakamoto is a man (or woman, or group) who created a new kind of money and it took on real value. But Nakamoto can’t spend the million or so bitcoins he or she has (worth about $450m at the time of writing), as doing so would flood the market and depreciate the currency.

Instead, they have to sit, unable to be spent, as their owner avoids scrutiny – from the state, from organised crime, from everyone. Which is one reason why so many people now claim that the one thing we can say for sure is that the founder of Bitcoin wouldn’t be so foolish as to give the game away. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred

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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details:

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear