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Reasons to be wary of Newsweek's Bitcoin inventor “discovery”

Maybe the mysterious creator of Bitcoin was using his real name all along. Or maybe not.

Satoshi Nakamoto – the inventor of Bitcoin – has been outed by Newsweek as… Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, 64. He’s a model steam-train enthusiast from Temple City, near Los Angeles, California.

He’s a Japanese-American engineer, who moved to the US from Japan with his mother and two brothers; since 1973, when he graduated from California State Polytechnic University, he’s used the name Dorian S Nakamoto (and, for the purposes of this article, “S Nakamoto” will refer to the creator of Bitcoin, while “D Nakamoto” will refer to Dorian Nakamoto). He lives with his 93-year-old mother in a rather normal house on a rather normal street.

This isn’t what was meant to happen – and judging from the reaction to the piece, there are quite a few people who really don’t want to accept that the legendary Satoshi Nakamoto drives a silver Toyota Corolla CE. If true, Newsweek journalist Leah McGrath Goodman deserves praise for landing the white whale of tech journalism, especially as it seems that no one else had the idea to search the database of naturalised American citizens (as she and forensic analysts Sharon Sergeant and Barbara Mathews did).

Here’s the article. Have a read, then come back. If you’re sceptical, you’re not the only one.

People have been looking for S Nakamoto for a long time, but always with the assumption that the name was a pseudonym – perhaps for a group of people, perhaps for an individual. Rumours that “he” lived in Japan were widely seen as misdirection; attempts to track “him” down gave a range of candidates, each with a connection to the worlds of finance, coding or cryptography. There is significant evidence, in the form of date stamps and IP addresses, that whoever S Nakamoto is, they weren’t inside the US – western Europe was more likely. 

That meant people like Bitcoin Foundation lead developer Gavin Andresen (interviewed by Goodman); or Michael Clear, a cryptographer with experience of peer-to-peer currencies who worked for Allied Irish Bank (and tracked down by the New Yorker); or three cryptographers whose use of unique phrases in earlier papers matched phrases found only in S Nakamoto’s white paper proposing Bitcoin.

With that in mind, here’s the evidence Newsweek relies upon to allege that D Nakamoto is S Nakamoto:

  • His background in “defense and electronics communications”.
  • His political beliefs, described as “very wary of the government, taxes and people in charge”.
  • His humility (“I could see my dad doing something brilliant and not accepting the greater effect of it”, his daughter says).
  • His age, which correlates with S Nakamoto’s “old school” coding technique.
  • His style of written English, which varies British and American spelling and includes “quirks” like double-spacing after periods.
  • He had the free time to write the initial Bitcoin paper (“His life was a complete blank for a while,” his brother says).

That, more or less, is it. If it was only that, then D Nakamoto wouldn’t be worth mentioning as a candidate for S Nakamoto. The piece actually rests on this exchange:

Now face to face, with two police officers as witnesses, Nakamoto's responses to my questions about Bitcoin were careful but revealing.

Tacitly acknowledging his role in the Bitcoin project, he looks down, staring at the pavement and categorically refuses to answer questions.

"I am no longer involved in that and I cannot discuss it," he says, dismissing all further queries with a swat of his left hand. "It's been turned over to other people. They are in charge of it now. I no longer have any connection."

Nakamoto refused to say any more, and the police made it clear our conversation was over.

This is the closest Goodman gets to a confession, and it, notably, isn’t one.

Throughout the piece, it is made very clear, from those family members who are quoted, that D Nakamoto is an extremely private, reticent individual. He screens his calls and anonymises his emails, and doesn’t like attention being focused on him. He’s brilliant, but also “an asshole”, his brother says. He doesn’t want to be the centre of attention.

While it might be tempting to interpret D Nakamoto’s behaviour as trying to preserve an incredible secret, it’s also possible that it’s a man in his 60s, wary of authority figures, reacting to a journalist appearing out of nowhere and prying into his private life.

Goodman writes that her contact with D Nakamoto was first over email, to an address obtained via a company that he buys model trains from. As soon as she switches the topic from model steam trains to Bitcoin, he “ceased responding”. She then visits to his house, knocking on the door and trying to get him to talk. Then, she speaks to his family members, who all warn her that he will deny everything and that he likely isn't responsible for Bitcoin

Despite D Nakamoto’s clear intelligence, never is it made clear whether he is a programmer as well as engineer; there also isn’t any indication that he’s familiar with cryptography, let alone knowledgeable enough to be able to have written the Bitcoin white paper. His degree is in physics, and his career was in communications. The only part of his CV that has anything do with finance is the period he spent with Quotron Systems Inc, a “financial information service” – that’s not bank transfers. We don’t know if he was designing servers or encrypting broadcasts, a necessary detail.

He was laid off twice during the Nineties, and subsequently developed his “libertarian” political beliefs. Read the exchange in the driveway again – does it read like a defeated runaway? Or does it read like an ill, elderly man feeling intimidated that a journalist from Newsweek keeps coming to his house, and who tries to get rid of her?

This is probably a stretch but it feels less of a stretch than thinking that Satoshi Nakamoto was using his real name this entire time – especially considering how carefully “he” made sure to cover “his” tracks when active in the Bitcoin community’s early days. Maybe D Nakamoto, libertarian that he is, bought some bitcoins, and thought he was going to get in trouble for it. Maybe he’s saying anything to make a problem go away.

Perhaps Gavin Andresen has made the point most succinctly:

Andresen has also tweeted that he regretted speaking to Goodman, as she has “doxxed” the Nakamoto family. That’s a term used on the web to describe when someone, like Anonymous, finds the personal details of someone – their address, their phone number, their social security number, etc – and posts it online, maliciously.

Newsweek’s article featured a picture of D Nakamoto’s house when first published (it has since been removed). The licence plate number on his car, parked outside, wasn’t blurred, although the picture was of low enough resolution that working it out would be difficult. Within minutes of the article’s publication, people on social media had figured out where he lives using Google Street View. The names of many of D Nakamoto’s family members are in the piece, because they were interviewed for it. That’s not doxxing – that's reporting, although the information that led straight to his house is a bad mistake on Newsweek’s part.

S Nakamoto's wealth is estimated to be around $400m, so it’s understandable that people are worried that D Nakamoto may be in danger – though many redditors have been debating doxxing Goodman as an act of revenge. People on the Bitcointalk forum are similarly unimpressed by the reveal, and TV news crews are outside his home already. People are tracing D Nakamoto’s postings on public forums, comparing his writing style to the style found in S Nakamoto’s writing on Bitcoin. If D Nakamoto is not responsible for Bitcoin, it doesn’t matter, because much of his life is no longer a private matter – and he doesn't have a choice.

UPDATE 07/03/2013 10:20: Dorian Nakamoto has denied that he is the creator of Bitcoin in an interview with the AP. He claims that he had never heard of Bitcoin until three weeks ago, when his son told him that Goodman had been trying to reach him. He also states that the key quote in the piece – “I am no longer involved in it and I cannot discuss it” – was in reference to his confidential military work, and was misunderstood by Goodman. Tellingly, Dorian Nakamoto referred to Bitcoin as “Bitcom” several times during the interview with the AP reporter.