For years, Bitcoin users assumed that the name of the crypto-currency’s mysterious creator, “Satoshi Nakamoto,” was a pseudonym of some sort.
Bitcoin isn’t “coin” in the traditional sense: it’s backed by code, not a central bank. That code generates a set number of Bitcoins every few minutes, in a geometric progression designed to stop once the overall money supply reaches a certain value. Bitcoins are sold and bought via exchanges, similar to “real” currency and other goods. Nakamoto described all of this in a lengthy paper (PDF) published in 2008.
Trust in Bitcoin’s value and authenticity hinges on the cryptography protecting the underlying protocol; and if an exchange is somehow undermined or robbed, the owners of the stolen Bitcoin have virtually no recourse for getting their “money” back.
Goodman isn’t the first reporter to try and crack the mystery of Nakamoto, who largely disappeared from the Web after telling a developer he’d “moved on to other things.” The New Yorker did its best in 2011, circling several possible suspects before grinding to a frustrated halt. For Goodman, however, discovering the identity of the man behind Bitcoin proved astoundingly simple: she searched a database of naturalized U.S. citizens for the name “Satoshi Nakamoto,” obtained a match, and began the real-world detective work of tracking the man down.
That legwork uncovered some key details. Nakamoto, always skilled in math and science, spent his adult life working for various corporate and government contractors, often on classified projects. Despite his employment with those entities, he maintained libertarian ideals; in interviews with Goodman, his family paints a picture of a very private—and at times mercurial—man, equally comfortable with talking politics or building his own computers from scratch.
But when she showed up at his front door, Nakamoto refused to outright admit his role as the creator of Bitcoin:
“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.”
So make of that what you will—it’s always possible, thanks to the ephemeral nature of identity on the Web, that this Satoshi Nakamoto isn’t “Satoshi Nakamoto.” And if this Satoshi Nakamoto is “Satoshi Nakamoto,” a very private man just had his life exposed to the harsh light of public scrutiny.
Image: Alexander Kirch