The Bitcoin Crypto-Currency Mystery Reopened

A New Yorker writer implies he found Bitcoin's mysterious creator. We think he got the wrong man, and offer far more compelling evidence that points to someone else entirely.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker , Joshua Davis wrote a story about 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.

For more, watch this.

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:

Updating And Distributing Encryption Keys invention

Feb 18, 2010—... the outputs of which are fixed-size strings that are computationally impractical to reverse-map. In this manner, the shared secret, ...

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.

Domain Name:BITCOIN.ORG

Created On:18-Aug-2008

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.

KEY MANAGEMENT FOR COMMUNICATION NETWORKS 

"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.

[Correction, May 22, 2013: The Vladamir Oksman described above is the wrong one. The right one is listed on LinkedIn as having worked as a technical marketing director for semiconductor company Lantiq. When the Oksman Penenberg contacted later in this story replies "wrong person," he's correct. We have changed the LinkedIn link above to direct to the right profile.]

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.

Classic Nakamoto.

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

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19 Comments

  • Neal Palmquist

    If there was a strain of herpes and the only know cure was to screw somebody else and leave it with them, Bitcoiners would be acting as if it was the greatest thing ever!

  • Andy

    A really interesting article but then "..we may have to wait a Deep Throat length of time...". How did that get there? lol

  • RobertLKing

    What's the difference between physical and
    non-physical currency? Investment Banking has been digitizing currency since
    the push of a button. Electronic Funds Transfer is the way we transact and pay
    our obligations be they public or private. What's the difference if we pay our
    bills in CASH, CHECK or ELECTRONIC TRANSFER? Gold and Silver is obviously not
    currency rich, you must exchange it TO SPEND IT. Once currency has been
    detached from a Value Indicator then ...for all intents and purposes currency
    is out the window with the baby's bath water. WORTHLESS. This is the method
    Germany incorporated during the roaring twenties to survive from the
    reparations of The Great War, the only thing missing was a Market Crash in
    America, which was finally engineered in October 1929 for the benefit of
    Regulated Commercial Banking interests. After that it was nothing more than the
    working legislation and another war that kept the Scheme a float, it was all
    just conspiracy back in the day. Yet TODAY the FACT remains... without some
    form of energy source bitcoin cannot transact. So what comes first Energy Source
    or Digitization? Both of which cannot produce without the other. Energy and
    Digital are connected at the hip, opposite sides of the same Bitcoin? Bitcoin
    is the quintessential counterfeit currency. LOL

  • Neal Palmquist

    Bitcoin is an inventory management system for thin air. Gold and silver atoms are not infinitely divisible. Bitcoin is infinitely divisible because it was always nothing in the first place. Zero divided zero times is not one, but the Bitcoiners forgot to put that into their hashing algorithm.

  • Janosch Graef

    I want to note, that on the Bitcoin paper Satoshi used satoshin@gmx.com - where GMX is a german email provider or at least widely used in Germany. This would correspond with your observations that Neil King and Charles Bry live in Germany.

  • Dkkdkd

    It's not commonly realized, but the coding styles of individual developers are highly idiosyncratic. For instance, I can often identify who is responsible for code in my companies code base without consulting source control. I know my co-workers styles and their styles are as unique as their handwriting. Now, consider that all the code in the original bitcoin system was written by Satoshi and can easily be extracted from the bitcoin repo. Thats effectively a big of "handwriting" sample to do comparisons with. Next consider that there are probably only a few thousand crytographers worldwide who would have the expertise to create bitcoin, so one doesn't have to do all that many comparisons....You really dont have to settle for the weak fairly tale you have spun above, when matching code styles between Satoshi and a suspect would be unambiguous proof of identity

  • x

    I think it's actually very commonly realized that personal coding style preferences are quite distinctive. For this reason, if this is a single individual trying to conceal their identity, it would seem quite obvious that they'd pick a coding style which cannot immediately be associated with other things they did in the past.

    If this is a group, a coding standard may simply have been dictated which isn't the personal preference of the author anyway. I write code very differently for my employer from what I do on my own time. I'm also quite aware of minor differences between my own style and the style of other co-workers within the degree of variation permitted by the in-house coding standard; I could easily adjust if I were to make an effort to hide who I am.

    There are also code formatters which could be used for the same purpose. In short, I think most developers have made the same experience as you - I too can tell the difference between styles, and I'm sure "Satoshi" can as well, and we can easily adjust if needed.

  • Embarrassing

    "In a recent New Yorker story, Joshua Davis wrote a story on Bitcoin..." This is the lede of a journalism professor at NYU? Wow. 

  • lukeuser

    "I believe I can state with absolute certainty the same of the other co-authors of our cryptography patents"

    That's would be a bit presumptuous to say on behalf of his 2 partners surely. I certainly think this is a very convincing lead.

    "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."
    That makes him sound a bit to earnest to prove not non-involvement. And the argument is clearly flawed. The trip to Finland seems another interesting correlation  Maybe you should try to contact the Finnish company.

  • nealjking

    Penenberg doubts that it would be possible to work in
    cryptography without having heard about Bitcoin. With all due respect,
    this shows that Penenberg is essentially someone who approaches
    technology from the outside: He learns about technological advances
    because people are talking about them. But if you are developing a
    solution to a problem that you have before you (and in the case of the
    patent in question, a problem related to securing telecommunications
    privacy), you can be completely unconcerned with and unaware of how
    someone else may be applying the same area of technology to an entirely
    different application (in this case, cyber-currency). In industrial
    settings, necessity (not technology) is the mother of invention.

    In the meantime, I’m cashing in on Warhol’s prediction of 15 minutes of
    fame – albeit for something I DIDN’T do! The only practical consequence
    seems to be that I got about 100 “Facebook friend” requests last week
    from Russian programmers. Unfortunately, not a single Bond girl among
    them …
     

  • William Franceschine

    Ok that was pretty convincing. The three day gap with the domain registration and the identical "computationally impractical to reverse" would be pretty amazing coincidences though.

    The part about Google saying links containing bitcoin point to those pages has an explanation though. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G... All it would take is for anybody, anywhere on the internet to have linked to those pages with 'bitcoin' in the anchor text. I would guess it was on a forum or something where people were either sleuthing for Satoshi or discussing bitcoin programming topics - and his name came up somehow.

  • Suhas Sharma

    I think you should put together a "The Writing of Satoshi Nakamoto" book so that everyone can look into the matter.