Years have gone by since any new piece of writing has appeared by Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of bitcoin. But on Friday night, someone claiming to be Nakomoto published 21 pages of new material—a sneak preview, allegedly, of a book about the cryptocurrency’s origins.
The excerpt appeared at 11:45 p.m., on a website, NakamotoFamilyFoundation.org, anonymously purchased three days ago via Amazon’s domain registrar. A proxy also established contact with WIRED on the self-proclaimed Nakamoto’s behalf.
Ever since bitcoin’s anonymous creation, numerous people have come forward claiming to be Nakamoto; online conspiracy theories and journalistic investigations have fingered one Satoshi after another. A widely debunked 2014 Newsweek magazine article pointed to a Japanese-American man in California; in 2015, WIRED reported that Australian academic Craig Wright “was either the inventor of Bitcoin … or a hoaxer.” Wright continues to push that he’s Nakamoto, even tweeting Friday in a cryptic message that he would soon prove it and, over the weekend, tweeting without elaboration that the “new” Nakamoto writings were a fraud: “Nakamotofamilyfoundation cannot get the dates nor technical details correct.”
Numerous people have come forward claiming to be Nakamoto; online conspiracy theories and journalistic investigations have fingered one Satoshi after another.
In all that time, no one has proven themselves to be Nakamoto to the satisfaction of the members of the cryptographic community that helped give birth to bitcoin. As skeptics in the cryptography community have repeatedly pointed out, the true Satoshi ought to have access to the cryptographic keys that control the first bitcoins—coins that have stayed put for a decade. If someone purporting to be Nakamoto were to move one of those coins to a different address or sign something with keys that only Satoshi has, that would be a pretty good form of verification.
This new Nakamoto—who still does not want his real identity revealed—declined to move any coins or sign anything with his own keys. “He” (if it is a him) is not, according to information provided to WIRED, any of the three leading Nakamoto suspects: Wright, Nick Szabo, or Dorian Nakamoto, the person identified previously by Newsweek.
WIRED reached out to several members of the early bitcoin community in an attempt to verify the authenticity of the excerpt—and came back, as has happened every time Satoshi Nakamoto is sighted in the wild, with inconclusive answers.
Bitcoin, He Wrote
The excerpt, which this Nakamoto describes as a “short story,” includes a cryptogram that he says reveals the title of his forthcoming book. The simple numbers-for-letters substitution yields the words “Honne and Tatamae,” a transliteration of a Japanese phrase meant to convey the contrast between a person’s private feelings and their public behavior. Similarly, the excerpt is entitled “Duality.”
The text of the excerpt contains a smattering of potentially new, identifying details. Nakamoto describes his mother is an author (“albeit small circulation”) and his grandmother as the founder of a very small publishing company. At age 14, he writes, he was drawn into the cypherpunk community, “where anonymity was as fundamental as breathing.” He says he was in his 20s when he began posting about bitcoin while working as a university researcher in a lab, and that he came up with the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto because it was the Japanese “equivalent of ‘John Smith’”—though he all but confirms that he is not Japanese.
The author devotes considerable space in the new excerpt to explaining his desire for privacy, describing how he ran the network on his own computers using anonymizing software. He notes, though, that he forgot one detail in shielding his identity: time stamps. “Some were intuitive enough to graph together the hours in which I would post on the forums and commit to the repository and formed a literal ‘map’ of when I was awake and when I was asleep,” he writes, a map that identified him as appearing to keep the hours of someone on the East Coast of the United States.
The bulk of the excerpt offers a history of bitcoin’s origins by detailing the author’s purported correspondence with other prominent members of the cryptographic community: Adam Back, Wei Dai, Gavin Andresen, and ?Hal Finney. Bitcoin, he writes, “arose out of the many failed attempts by many groups, and the only reason it succeeded was because it was at the right place, at the right time.”
The document is filled with unverified details about the early days of the project. The blockchain, he writes, was initially referred to as the “time chain.” A fork, the mechanism by which cryptocurrency projects split off from each other, was originally called a “branch point.” And as for why he capped the supply of bitcoins the way he did, he offers this explanation: “Why 21 million? The truth is, it was an educated guess.”
The excerpt also refers, obliquely and mysteriously, to the possibility that Satoshi Nakamoto is, or was at some point, a group of people. That appears to the be the subject of one of the most cryptic sentences in the document, which is italicized: “I will say this though, consider for a moment the distinction; as to whether I had help or was part of that help in creation, and then separate that from the person who followed, which for the most part, was very consistent.”
The success of bitcoin, the author says, took him completely by surprise. “It would either work really well and catch on, or fail spectacularly. And although I saw many uses for bitcoin outside of the traditional ones, such as narrow niches where traditional currency didn’t really fit in—reward points, donation tokens, in game currency, things like that, I never did expect bitcoin to catch on the way it did and to be in direct competition with fiat currency.”
The new purported Nakamato devotes nearly a full page of the excerpt to Harold “Hal” Finney, a computer scientist who received the first-ever Bitcoin transaction and who died in 2014. Nakamoto calls Finney “the first believer in what I was trying to do” and “one of the most intellectually bright minds I ever had the chance of parlaying words with.” Finney, he writes, was “essential” in Bitcoin’s prototyping and was the first to report a bug in the system: “To this day, I still think about how good of a person Hal was and how if it wasn’t for him, bitcoin would have not succeeded the way it did. When I had no support, when it was just me, Hal was the only one other person who believed.”
Given how much of the excerpt describes correspondence between crypto pioneers, it’s striking that it makes only a passing mention of the work of Nick Szabo, one of the main members of the cryptographic community who worked on precursors to bitcoin—and a figure who’s often been suspected of being Nakamoto.
Adam Back, another cryptocurrency pioneer mentioned extensively in the new excerpt, says that many—potentially all—of the verifiable details in the story already exist in the public domain, making it hard to determine whether the writings reflect true, first-hand knowledge or merely thorough research by a hoaxer. The new Nakamoto’s proxy was unable to answer specific questions posed by Back, through WIRED, regarding Back’s early correspondence with Nakamoto.
While the excerpt also includes extensive details about Nakamoto’s early, private correspondence with Finey, those exchanges don’t necessarily serve as proof of authenticity either. Before Finney’s death from ALS in 2014, he asked his wife and son to make those conversations public in an attempt to dissuade those who believed Finney himself to be bitcoin’s creator.
Finney’s widow, Fran Finney, tells WIRED that she appreciated the new excerpts description of her husband, but noted that it didn’t include any unfakeable proof of the author’s identity. “We’d like to be real,” she said. “But that doesn’t make it real.”
Many of the details in the story already exist in the public domain, making it hard to determine whether the writings reflect true, first-hand knowledge or thorough research by a hoaxer.
In the new document, the purported Nakamoto says he left the bitcoin project by Christmas 2010, rather than the long-publicly acknowledged date of his departure, April 2011. As he explains, “I tried my best to leave no affirmation that I had ever existed at all, and everything that did link me I put into a series of files, so in the case I left, anyone could take on the persona. There are other, more serious reasons for leaving that I will not include here but will be mentioned in the book.”
Gavin Andresen, one of the early pioneers on the project who could presumably verify whether Nakamoto’s early departure date was accurate, declined to speculate about the document’s authenticity, saying by email, “No comment—I’m retired from the ‘who was Satoshi’ game.”
The “who was Satoshi” game is more than a cute online parlor exercise, given the vast resources apparently locked away in Nakamoto’s digital wallets. Researchers believe that the person or persons who invented Bitcoin still retains upwards of 900,000 Bitcoins, a fortune that even at today’s depressed prices—Bitcoin is down about 70 percent from its peak value of $22,000 per coin at the end of last year—would net Nakamoto about $5.8 billion. That’s roughly the equivalent of designer Ralph Lauren’s fortune and enough, if he is an American, to place Nakamoto among the 100 wealthiest Americans.
“The truth is one that people will not come to expect,” Nakamoto says in the excerpt, continuing, “Because the truth is too special to give away, requires a long answer, which will be in the book.”
Additional reporting by Andy Greenberg
Update on 7/1/18, 5:30 PM EDT: This article has been updated to reflect new reporting.