In a recent New Yorker story, Joshua Davis wrote a story on Bitcoin, the crypto-currency that has ignited the imaginations of the technorati and led to a rush of media coverage. But this is no usual magazine feature. Not only does Davis, a marvelous writer whose work I've long admired, offer a primer on Bitcoin--what it is, how it works, why it’s important--he sets off on a journey to find its mysterious, secrecy-obsessed inventor, who goes by the name Satoshi Nakamoto. I think the man he found at the end of his search is the wrong guy. And by transparently sharing my own process for tracking Bitcoin's elusive inventor, I will show how a stream of stunning coincidences can end up pointing to not one, but three potential candidates.
What The Hell's A Bitcoin?
// Bitcoins are a decentralized virtual currency that rely on public-key cryptography. If you buy something with a Bitcoin you're simply transmitting a symbolic token stamped with a complex number that transfers ownership to someone else. Unlike traditional banking, which keeps customer information private, Bitcoin transactions are transparent so the "market" knows when a bitcoin is spent but not the owner's identity. Money supply is increased by users who "mine" bitcoins by dedicating computer processing power to the Bitcoin network. Bitcoins are not regulated by any government or bank, and the currency has seeped into criminal activities. As a result, legislators are threatening crackdowns, and some claim it is a vast scam.
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As Davis reported, Nakamoto published a research paper in 2008 that detailed the ideas underpinning Bitcoins and wrote hundreds of posts to a forum in "flawless English." After one last post in April in which he claimed he had "moved on to other things," he vanished, yet his footprints are everywhere. Davis pored through Nakamoto's online writings, all 80,000 words and searched for clues. The mystery man's prose was quite clean, he noted, very few typos, and after his first post, in which he employed American spellings, he switched to the Queen's English for all the rest. Color was "colour," gray, "grey," an apartment was a "flat" and he wrote "bloody hard" at least once. What's more, embedded into the Bitcoin code is a tag that relates to a Times of London headline from January 3, 2009, on the government being on the brink to rescue Britain's banks with a second bailout. Then Davis interviewed a leading computer security researcher who sifted through Bitcoin's code, searching for flaws. He didn't find any, concluding that Nakamoto would have to be "a world-class programmer" with "a deep understanding" of C++--the programming language--and an extensive background in cryptography, economics, and peer-to-peer networking.
Davis reasoned that Satoshi Nakamoto was probably a British national and set off for the Crytpo 2011 conference in Santa Barbara to find him. It led him to Michael Clear, a 23-year-old graduate student in cryptography at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Clear had worked at a bank, co-authored a paper on peer-to-peer, and, unsurprisingly, employed British spellings. The first time Davis asked Clear, who was named Trinity's top computer student in 2008, if he were Bitcoin's creator, Clear just laughed. The next time Davis asked, Clear replied, "I'm not Satoshi, but even if I was I wouldn't tell you."
After the article was published and numerous media outlets picked up on the sleuth-mystery angle, Clear denied he was Satoshi Nakamoto. He told IrishCentral, "My sense of humor when I said 'even if I was I wouldn't tell you' is missing, this was said jokingly." Clear "found it funny that the New Yorker reporter thought I was Satoshi, but I have always (beyond conversational jokes like the quote above) vehemently denied it. I could never allow myself to be even remotely given credit for someone else's creativity and hard work."
This is where I come in. Like Davis, I too had been trying to find Satoshi Nakamoto and had accumulated a body of circumstantial evidence--including some crazy coincidences--that, taken as a whole, led me to believe that Bitcoin's creator was probably someone else entirely. I wondered if the British spellings and the headline inserted into Bitcoin's code were red herrings, placed there to throw pursuers off the scent. Wasn't Nakamoto's first post written with American spellings? It wouldn't take much for someone as bright as Nakamoto to create a modest disinformation campaign.
But I wasn't confident I could confirm my suspicions. The man (or men) behind Bitcoin had shown he wanted to disappear, and unless he would agree to talk, there was no way I could ever be sure. Unlike, say, Dan Lyons as "Fake Steve Jobs," who confirmed his pseudonymous identity when finally confronted, Satoshi Nakamoto wasn't likely to cooperate, even if promised anonymity in exchange for an interview. For months I sat on this research. Then Davis's article came out.
So I offer my process here, with the caveat that these unlikely coincidences could end up being just that, even though in my opinion my evidence is much more convincing than Davis's. (Said with respect, yo!)
First, most believe that Satoshi Nakamoto is a made up name, and it seems a person as learned as Bitcoin's creator might be tempted to choose a pseudonym that encompasses a deeper meaning. In Japanese Satoshi translates into "clear-thinking; quick-witted; wise." "Naka" can mean "inside" or "relationship" while "moto" is defined as "the origin; the cause; the foundation; the basis." So we have "clear-thinking" "inside" "the foundation." Mystical, isn't it?
I started with some amateur textual analysis of Satoshi Nakamoto's Bitcoin paper, extracting fragments of phrases and running them through Google. I figured I'd see if any of the ones in the paper appear elsewhere online. People tend to repeat themselves. The trick is to plug in unique-sounding fragments and place them in quotes. That way you only get a handful of results to comb through. I struck out on the first few, which all appeared solely in the Bitcoin paper, and there was one irrelevant link. Then I tried the term "computationally impractical to reverse." It resulted in 26 results, the vast majority related to the Bitcoin paper or to bitcoins themselves. Except for one of the last ones--a patent application:
It was for a "system and method for providing secure communications." Initially, "an exchange protocol, such as a password-authenticated key exchange protocol, is used to create a shared secret. From the shared secret, two keys are created: a utilized key and a stored key. The utilized key is used to encrypt messages between nodes. When it is time to replace the utilized key to maintain security, the stored key is utilized to encrypt messages for generating/distributing a new shared secret. The new shared secret is then used to generate a new utilized key and a new stored key. This process may be repeated any number of times to maintain security."
After reading that, I wondered if it could be related to Bitcoin's technology. What are bitcoins but shared secrets? Encryption plays a vital role, and they are certainly dynamic.
I looked at the date on the patent application filing: 08/15/2008.
Now take a look at the domain bitcoin.org. It was registered three days later.
Now that is one hell of a coincidence. What are the odds that a phrase in Nakamoto's Bitcoin paper would be replicated in a patent application filed the same year? Further, what are the odds the domain name for Bitcoin would have been registered 72 hours after the patent application was filed?
Based on the timing, I wondered if one of the people on the patent application--or perhaps all three--had based the Bitcoin concept on research that led them to this patent application. The three inventors listed on patent #20100042841 are Neal King, Vladimir Oksman, Charles Bry, and all three have filed numerous patent applications over the years.
Neal King (he also goes by Neal J. King from Munich, Germany) is listed on a number of patent applications, notably "UPDATING AND DISTRIBUTING ENCRYPTION KEYS" (#20100042841) and "CONTENTION ACCESS TO A COMMUNICATION MEDIUM IN A COMMUNICATIONS NETWORK" (#20090196306), both of which seem Bitcoin-y to me.
Charles Bry, who also resides in Munich, has filed several applications, many dealing with nodes and networks.
Vladamir Oksman, who lives in the U.S., has several patent applications, too, and they too seem related to networks, nodes.
I found another patent application that lists the three of them as inventors, filed June 2008--two months before the Bitcoin.org domain was registered.
"Abstract One embodiment of the present invention relates to a method for key management in a communications network. In this method, a public key authentication scheme is carried out between a security controller and a plurality of nodes to establish a plurality of node-to-security-controller (NSC) keys. The NSC keys are respectively associated with the plurality of nodes and are used for secure communication between the security controller and the respective nodes."
Could that also be related to Bitcoin?
Now, another coincidence: The Bitcoin.org domain was registered by a Finnish provider, based in Helsinki.
Charles Bry traveled to Finland in late 2007, six months before the domain was registered. In addition, Bry, who is a senior system engineer, lists German, English, French, and Italian as languages he speaks, and went to college in Paris. He works for a company called Lantiq.
Then there's Neal J. King, and there are more oddities. A Neal J. King has a Facebook page that is sketchy with personal information, yet if you search for "Neal J. King" in Facebook's search box, his profile doesn't pop up. His wall is filled with posts about the recent Wall Street protests, banking, and criticism of the Patriot Act. Keep scrolling down and he "likes" blau.de, a German mobile phone sim card site. He also claims highbrow taste in literature and books, and it seems he's an avid reader, having reviewed 46 books on Amazon--many deal with astronomy, biology, cryptography, linguistics, literature, mathematics, philosophy and physics. I read through his reviews, and his writing is excellent. Very clean. No typos. His sentences are elegant yet there are no extra words. The writing style reminds me of Satoshi Nakamoto's posts in the Bitcoin Forum minus British spellings, which, as I noted above, I believe is a canard.
Finally, I looked up Vladamir Oksman's LinkedIn profile (there are a couple of guys with this name, but he was easy to find). He is a staff software engineer at Samsung, driving integration and commercialization of Android-based smartphones, and also has a vast technical background, including Linux, Msft, etc. Oksman lives in New Jersey.
Here's another subtle connection, and I'm not sure what it means. If you google "Vladimir Oksman bitcoin" you get a handful of results, including his LinkedIn profile, a patent application listing him as an inventor, and his resume. Yet "bitcoin" does not appear on any of these pages. When I checked cached versions of the first two results, it said, "These search terms are highlighted: vladimir oksman. These terms only appear in links pointing to this page: bitcoin."
So the word "bitcoin" appears in links pointing to this page? Why? I tried this with the two other inventors on the "Updating And Distributing Encryption Keys invention" patent. "Neal King Bitcoin" gets you two useless results, and neither have links with bitcoin pointing to their pages. '"Charles Bry Bitcoin" has zero results.
In conclusion, each of the three inventors listed on the patents can be circumstantially tied to Bitcoin. A fairly obscure phrase from the Bitcoin paper leads to a patent application that explores a similar technical topic and was filed that same year. The bitcoin.org doman was registered three days after the patent application was filed. The three inventors seem to have the skills, and King's writing shares similarities with Nakamoto's, as do his interests.
But are they Satoshi Nakamoto? I showed my research, including the patents, to several computer security professionals--ranging from experts in cryptogaphraphy to network analysis pros--and there was a wide range of opinions. Meanwhile Charles Bry denies that he and/or his co-inventors are related in any way to Bitcoin: "I hope I do not disappoint you too much by saying that I am not Satoshi Nakamoto, nor am I associated with him or with Bitcoin in any way. I believe I can state with absolute certainty the same of the other co-authors of our cryptography patents." I also messaged Vladamir Oksman through LinkedIn, and he replied with a terse "Wrong person."
Neal J. King offered the most detailed response. He said the technical topics between his patent application and Bitcoin, "are very different, excepting that both relate to authentication to some extent." He claims he "had never heard of Bitcoin until this question came up," and had to look up Bitcoin on Wikipedia, concluding that, "It’s not a very good idea: Nakamoto’s algorithm is a solution in search of a problem." He finds fault with the lack of a guaranteed value for Bitcoins. "As long as people want to play the game, they can pretend that a Bitcoin has value, but if someone refuses to accept it, you can’t make him; and it would be seriously unwise for him to accept it." He contrasts this with the U.S. dollar, which "also has no intrinsic value" but since it can be used to pay taxes it can be used to settle debt. "If the U.S. government loses the ability to enforce payment obligation on that person, a $1 bill will also have no value beyond the paper."
He concludes: "So whether I have dazzled you with my insight, or baffled you with my obtuseness, I think you will agree that no one who would write the paragraphs above would have invested the considerable amount of time Nakamoto spent elaborating the Bitcoin concept."
I didn't find his argument particularly persuasive. For one, it begs credulity that someone who has filed patent applications dealing with cryptography had never heard of Bitcoin until I asked about it. That would be like a journalist claiming he never heard of Twitter. And just because a currency is accepted by a government to settle taxes doesn't mean its citizens will continue to believe in its value. When a currency suffers hyperinflation--like in Zimbabwe, for example--people adopt other currencies, namely the dollar or euro. And recall that Joe Klein, who was eventually outed as "Anonymous," the author of Primary Colors--that oh-so-mid-1990s literary mystery--also initially denied writing the book.
But the point of this column isn't to claim we found Satoshi Nakamoto. It's to show how circumstantial evidence, which is what the New Yorker based its conclusions on, isn't synonymous with truth. I doubt the New Yorker found the right guy. I also believe that our evidence is far more compelling, yet we also probably haven't nailed it either. In fact, we may have to wait a Deep Throat length of time before we ever find out who the real Nakamoto is, and by then it might not matter.
In the end, Nakamoto's greatest, uncrackable code might be his own identity. In Davis's New Yorker article he describes the impenetrable nature of Nakamoto's code. Every time his computer security researcher thought he found a hole, he would discover a taunting message from Nakamoto indicating it had already been patched. It was, Davis said, like a thief tunneling under a bank only to discover that someone had poured concrete into his path "with a sign telling him to go home."
Just like Davis, I found all this information that pointed directly to someone, but in the end I ran into a brick wall, albeit accompanied by far more gentler denials.
Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.
[Image: Flickr user Matre]