An Australian entrepreneur claimed on Monday to be the creator of the online currency bitcoin. Within hours, the skepticism started.
Whether the truth is ultimately uncovered, the hunt for the founder’s identity is part of the new reality of the online age. A vast array of new tools and technologies makes it ever easier to hide in the vast Internet — and all the more difficult to put a face to every screen name.
The identity debate is crucial for bitcoin as those in the virtual currency community take sides over its direction. Some purists want to maintain bitcoin’s outsider status, underscored by the mystery surrounding its founder. Others see an opportunity to expand bitcoin into the commercial realm, making it more vulnerable to speculation and uncertainty.
Craig Steven Wright, the computer programmer who claimed in interviews with the BBC, The Economist and GQ to be the currency’s progenitor, said that he had come forward to quell the rumors. While Wright was first identified as bitcoin’s founder in December 2015 by Wired magazine and the technology website Gizmodo, he remained silent then.
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Wright said that he now wanted to “dispel any negative myths and fears” about the virtual currency. “I cannot allow the misinformation that has been spread to impact the future of bitcoin,” he said.
He did not offer further insight in the timing of his announcement. And he declined an interview request through a representative at the Outside Organisation, a public relations company.
If his claims prove true, Wright could help shape the debate over the future of bitcoin.
But many technical experts, including some of the leading bitcoin developers, said that Wright’s evidence did not prove he was the digital currency’s creator, identified by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto.
“It would take the real Satoshi about five minutes to provide conclusive proof to the entire bitcoin community, if the real Satoshi wanted to do that,” said Joseph Bonneau, a researcher at the Applied Crypto Group at Stanford University.
Then there were the enthusiasts who sought to play down the importance of the founder’s identity. The creator, they argued, has remained anonymous for years and the currency’s popularity has grown regardless.
Wright is “a lot like those very difficult geek/nerd/blatherers that turn minor IT support into a social drama,” Ian Grigg, a cryptocurrency researcher, wrote in a blog entry.
“Satoshi was more than a name, it was a concept, a secret, a team, a vision. Now Satoshi lives on in a new form — changed,” he added. “Much of the secret is gone, but the vision is still there.”
In the world of cybercrimes and encryption, finding the human behind the computer is the exception, not the rule.
The leaker of the Panama Papers, the trove of documents that exposed offshore accounts used by the rich and powerful, remains anonymous. The digital culprits who stole more than $80 million from Bangladesh’s central bank remain at large. And there is still no concrete indication of the perpetrators of the hack against Sony in 2014.
The creator of the illicit Internet market called the Silk Road, known in part for its reliance on bitcoin, was confirmed only by an operation in which he was grabbed at a San Francisco library with his laptop open. Before that, all that was known about him was an intriguing screen name: Dread Pirate Roberts.
The latest twist in bitcoin’s origins story is likely to feed the power vacuum that has plagued the virtual currency.
While a decentralized nature is at bitcoin’s core, it has also led to internal reflection over its evolution. Bitcoin’s longtime backers have recently split over the proper way to expand the network.
Founded as a digital competitor to existing currencies, bitcoin has moved more into the mainstream of late. Financial institutions are putting resources into researching how they can use the blockchain, the currency’s communal digital ledger, to make transactions faster and cheaper. Competition, too, has risen, with a host of new virtual currencies, like ethereum. And the growth of the bitcoin system has stalled.
The mystery of bitcoin’s founder has been central to its cachet ever since it surfaced in 2009. Yet the creator has also been mostly silent since bitcoin rose to prominence.
If Wright’s claims can be confirmed, they open a whole new set of issues for bitcoin. Does its creator have more power than others who have played a major role in its development? If the founder asserts authority over its direction, does that undercut the very power of the currency as a decentralized system?
Wright’s revelation was made just before a large bitcoin conference began in New York on Monday. After the announcement, the price of bitcoins fell about $10.
Satoshi, as the creator became known, communicated only by electronic message and never revealed his or her true identity before cutting off all communication in 2011. That has led to frequent speculation about the identity of Satoshi.
In perhaps the most notable case, Newsweek claimed in 2014 that the founder was Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, a physicist living in California. The revelation fueled a reporter-driven car chase of Dorian Nakamoto across Los Angeles, an indication of the tabloid-level curiosity behind bitcoin’s originator. Dorian Nakamoto eventually denied being the bitcoin founder.
If Wright is perpetrating a hoax, it is a rather elaborate one.
To back up his claims, the BBC said Wright had provided digitally signed messages using cryptographic keys inextricably linked to bitcoins generated by Satoshi Nakamoto. Wright also posted evidence on his blog, including a technical walk-through of how to verify cryptographic keys.
“I didn’t take the decision lightly to make my identity public,” Wright said in a news release, “and I want to be clear that I’m doing this because I care so passionately about my work.”
Soon after the stories were published in Wired and Gizmodo, the Australian Federal Police raided Wright’s home in suburban Sydney in connection with a tax investigation. The Australian tax authorities said at the time that they had determined that Wright was not Satoshi Nakamoto.
Gavin Andresen, who succeeded Satoshi Nakamoto as the lead bitcoin developer, wrote Monday on his blog that he believed Wright’s claim. Andresen has pushed for a bigger bitcoin, a strategy Wright also appears to back.
“After spending time with him, I am convinced beyond a reasonable doubt: Craig Wright is Satoshi,” Andresen wrote. “During our meeting, I saw the brilliant, opinionated, focused, generous — and privacy-seeking — person that matches the Satoshi I worked with six years ago.”
But the bitcoin community was not in consensus.
Another of the leading developers working on bitcoin’s basic software, Gregory Maxwell, said that the evidence presented by Wright was not enough to convince him. “It demonstrates no connection between this person and bitcoin’s creation,” Maxwell wrote in an email to the Times.
A programmer who is in charge of the bitcoin discussion boards, Michael Marquardt, wrote on Reddit that Wright’s new writings suggest an effort to deceive the public. And the main Reddit page dedicated to bitcoin was full of discussion Monday about the legitimacy of Wright’s claims.
“Altogether, the weight of the new evidence tips the scales very little, and the scales were already stacked against him being Satoshi,” said Jeremy Clark, an assistant professor at the Concordia Institute for Information Systems Engineering in Montreal.