Tracking down the elusive bitcoin founder

Editor’s note: Since the posting of this article, Andy Greenberg is now leaning towards the elaborate hoax theory. He explains his reasoning here.

For years, the identity of the inventor of Bitcoin remained a total mystery. Instead of revealing their name, the creator of the cyber currency — whose total value worldwide has grown to nearly $5 billion — goes by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. Media outlets like The New Yorker and Newsweek, not to mention world class hackers and cyber security experts, have all been on the case. But Andy Greenberg and Gwern Branwen of WIRED presented the most promising case Tuesday: that “Satoshi Nakamoto” is probably an unknown Australian genius named Craig Steven Wright.

Gizmodo posted its own investigation reaching this same conclusion just an hour and 30 minutes later. Then, three hours after the Wired article posted, Australian police raided a home belonging to this same Craig Steven Wright. The Australian Federal police claimed in a statement that the raids were unrelated to Wright’s potential bitcoin connection but the timing has many questioning that the two are entirely disconnected.

For those more accustomed to dealing in dollars and cents it is also important to first understand why this is such an intense fascination.

Nakamoto used amazingly innovative cryptography to execute what was then just an elusive concept. The code he created has been described as inscrutable, even flawless. He created an ingenious system that not only ensured the anonymity of bitcoin buyers and sellers but also included a mechanism to deal with inflation. Not only does Bitcoin circumvent the international banking system entirely but it also sidesteps the role of an entity like the United States Federal Reserve whose job it is to ensure the security of the dollar (counterfeiting) and control the supply as to not devalue the dollar’s buying power. Nakamoto did all of this successfully through code and an explanatory white paper.

We spoke to Andy Greenberg about his work trying to discover the identity of the anonymous and infamous creator of the currency.

How were you sure enough to identify this man who you think is Satoshi Nakamoto?

We definitely think we have the best case ever for identifying the creator of bitcoin but it’s a very difficult thing to do that with 100% certainty. We have a massive trove of leaked emails, transcripts and accounting documents and we have the PDF that shows there is a 1.1 million bitcoin trust fund ($413 million dollars) that seems to be the long lost fortune of Satoshi Nakamoto…The whole bitcoin community has identified that collection of bitcoins a long time ago and been watching to see if it does move and it hasn’t. One of the explanations might be this PDF that we have now that explains that there is this thing called the Tulip Trust which is 1.1 million bitcoins that Craig Wright has entrusted to the late David Kleiman his friend who passed away in 2015. He [Wright] wouldn’t have access to those coins until January 1st 2020 except to certain types of research and bitcoins businesses. We don’t know why those coins haven’t moved but this seems like one possible answer to that question.

Would you have thought someone like Wright could be responsible for Bitcoin?

I guess, yes. Basically Craig Wright fits every stereotype even of what a bitcoin user or enthusiast is like. He is a cyberpunk, he believes in using cryptography to give more power to individuals and take it from corporations and governments. He, at times in his life, was part of this cypherpunk group that wanted to use cryptography to fight authoritarian governments. He is a libertarian and he is a fan of gold as a financial tool. He is a kind of polymath that seems to have education, self-education and economics and law and computer security and cryptography all of the things that might come together to create the bitcoin idea in someone’s minds.

What has been the reaction since you published this article?

I think we’ve had a lot of people believe that we got the right guy. We’ve had a lot of skepticism as well. A lot of people have pointed to the fact that this could be a hoax. My response to that is yes it could be a hoax and I said that in the story. There is a reason we don’t say we found Satoshi Nakamoto, we say we probably found him. The other second most likely possibility here is if it is a hoax it would have to be one a very elaborate long term plan and I think it would have to have been organized by Craig Wright himself but we’ve been clear that is a possibility. We mentioned that there are these three blog posts that were kind of semi-public connection between Wright and Nakamoto but we also mention that all three of those blog posts have been edited to insert evidence after the fact. Some people have pointed to that as evidence its a hoax but to me given all the evidence that we have that is still ambiguous. It could be a hoax or could be that some part of Craig Wright wanted to be found and he was laying bread crumbs for us or anyone else who stumbled upon those clues.

What was this investigatory process like for you as a reporter? And were you racing to publish before Gizmodo?

This wasn’t the longest investigation I’ve worked on but it was definitely the most intense. It was only a little over three weeks ago I started talked to my co-author on this Gwern Branwen who had been leaked these documents and we went down this rabbit hole. We didn’t think anyone else was on the story and we hoped to explore all of this further. To be honest we still do have a lot of our own questions. I’ll just say that competitive pressure lead us to publish earlier than anyone wanted to. I am sure that Gizmodo didn’t want to publish that early either. We had prepared a story that we were comfortable with and solid in the claims it did make. We had that article prepared as a kind of back up as we pursued a more confirmed, full story.

Were you surprised at this raid that happened a few hours after you published the article?

I had heard that Craig Wright was in legal trouble in Australia and I bet that was maybe one reason why he had moved to London. But all of that remains unconfirmed for me. I certainly didn’t expect that raid to come so soon after that article and I don’t think it was triggered by our article in any sense except that the tax authorities were worried that too much attention on Craig Wright would make it more difficult to stage their rad or proceed with their investigation in a quieter way. I don’t think we in any way triggered that investigation but it may have sped it up as the trailing government got more nervous about increased media attention to the guy they were already investigating. Craig Wright seems to have lots of runs-ins with tax authorities in the past and disputes with them. He is not a fan of taxes or the welfare state.

If Wright is the creator of Bitcoin then was this all to help him avoid taxes in his native Australia?

We certainly get the impression that he cared deeply about privacy for its own sake. But that is also complicated because it seemed that some part of him wanted to be revealed also. It is possible that was one reason he didn’t want to reveal himself or get to much attention but it also doesn’t seem that he was keeping his money secret from tax authorities.