Spoiler Alert: After you read this article, you will know the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto beyond a reasonable doubt. If you were devastated when you discovered that Santa Claus was not real, you may not want to read further.
Who is Satoshi Nakamoto? This is a question that any Bitcoin enthusiast has asked himself at least once. The question piqued my interest as well, shortly after discovering Bitcoin back in 2011. I have been investigating this in my spare time over the past year, and as of late the answer has become quite clear. The question has also inspired numerous failed attempts at identifying Satoshi, including an embarrassing display of investigative journalism on the part of Newsweek’s Leah McGrath Goodman in March.
But why does it matter? He’s just a man, after all. Most members of the Bitcoin community will scoff at any attempt to identify Satoshi. “What matters is what he’s created, not him”, they’ll contest. It turns out they may be right, and wrong.
Who Is Satoshi Nakamoto?
The man behind the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto” is, beyond a reasonable doubt, a ’90s era cypherpunk, cryptographer, legal scholar, economic historian, and libertarian theorist named Nick Szabo. In this article, I will provide the evidence supporting this claim, and go on to make the case as to why, contrary to prevailing wisdom, knowing Satoshi’s identity is important on multiple levels.
What is certainly the most compelling evidence pointing to Szabo as the creator of Bitcoin is his work on a concept that he called “Bit Gold”, which he first described in 2005.
On the surface, many have dismissed Szabo’s work on “Bit Gold” as just another lost attempt to create a digital currency, to be filed alongside prior attempts such as “e-gold”, “b-money” or “ecash.” A closer look at Szabo’s bit gold idea, however, reveals something other than a primitive attempt at a digital cash scheme. In describing Bit Gold, Szabo laid out the exact technological architecture, along with the revolutionary “blockchain” idea, that would later give rise to Bitcoin itself. Bit Gold is not a defunct precursor to Bitcoin. Bit Gold is Bitcoin. In a 2005 blog post, Szabo describes Bit Gold:
Here are the main steps of the bit gold system that I envision:
(1) A public string of bits, the “challenge string,” is created (see step 5).
(2) Alice on her computer generates the proof of work string from the challenge bits using a benchmark function.
(3) The proof of work is securely timestamped. This should work in a distributed fashion, with several different timestamp services so that no particular timestamp service need be substantially relied on.
(4) Alice adds the challenge string and the timestamped proof of work string to a distributed property title registry for bit gold [all emphasis added]. Here, too, no single server is substantially relied on to properly operate the registry.
(5) The last-created string of bit gold provides the challenge bits for the next-created string.
(6) To verify that Alice is the owner of a particular string of bit gold, Bob checks the unforgeable chain of title in the bit gold title registry.
(7) To assay the value of a string of bit gold, Bob checks and verifies the challenge bits, the proof of work string, and the timestamp.1
To anyone familiar with Bitcoin’s architecture, it should be clear that Szabo’s highly technical description of “Bit Gold” in 2005 is identical to what we currently know as Bitcoin. Szabo even describes the “blockchain” concept, which he referred to as a “chain of title”. The blockchain is now known for being the major technological breakthrough that made Bitcoin possible, solving the “double spend problem” that had plagued previous digital currencies.
Upon examining Szabo’s “Bit Gold” idea, it becomes clear that “Bitcoin”, the technology, was in fact created by Szabo. But how can we be sure that Bitcoin wasn’t merely a case of someone finishing what Szabo had started? That question may have been answered 3 years later by Szabo himself.
In April of 2008, 7 months before the launch of Bitcoin,2 Szabo made his first mention of Bit Gold since 2005.3 He had yet to implement his “Bit Gold” idea, but he thought it was time to finally turn it from an idea to a reality.
[Bit Gold] would greatly benefit from a demonstration, an experimental market (with e.g. a trusted third party substituted for the complex security that would be needed for a real system). Anybody want to help me code one up?
Here, Szabo is asking for someone to help him make “Bit Gold” into a reality. Until then, it had just been an idea.
Interestingly, in the comment section of this blog post, the word “coin” is mentioned 30 times, by Szabo and others. One commenter named “eddie” even suggested the term “bit coin.”
Seven months later, Bitcoin was born.
After Bitcoin was released, Szabo made what one could suspect to be an attempt to “cover up” his work on Bit Gold. Szabo changed the date of the above blog post from April 2008 to December 2008, making it appear as though it was posted after Bitcoin had already been announced. While the date of the post currently reads December 2008, the URL of the post (which cannot be changed) still indicates the original date, which is “4/2008.” Szabo’s blog features hundreds of posts over a 7+ year span, but aside from two bit gold-related posts, he has not altered the date of any other posts. It is unclear why this post-dating occurred. It may be that shortly after the publication of the Bitcoin whitepaper, Szabo found something to edit in his bit gold articles. It may also be that Szabo post-dated the articles to thwart speculation that his Bit Gold idea had become Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin.
The Finney Connection
Szabo was also no stranger to creating anonymous identities. In an email dated Jan 2 1993, Szabo wrote:
In my limited experience creating Internet pseudonyms, I’ve been quite distracted by the continual need to avoid leaving pointers to my True Name lying around — excess mail to/from my True Name, shared files, common peculiarities (eg misspellings in written text), traceable logins, etc.4
While the fact that Szabo was experienced in creating internet pseudonyms would certainly explain why he has had success hiding behind “Satoshi Nakamoto”, it is still anecdotal. However, that same e-mail provided us with an even more valuable insight.
In the same 1993 e-mail, Szabo mentions someone by the name of Hal Finney. As many Bitcoin enthusiasts know, Finney has become one of most well-known early pioneers of Bitcoin. Finney was the recipient of the first Bitcoin transaction that ever took place (from Satoshi), and was an early contributor to the Bitcoin code. Finney was also recently the subject of an investigative report by Andy Greenberg of Forbes, which explored the hypothesis that Finney may be Satoshi Nakamoto (close, but no cigar).5
Szabo’s relationship with Finney provides a link between Satoshi Nakamoto and Nick Szabo. Both had a relationship with Hal Finney. Had Satoshi been someone other than Szabo, it’s very unlikely that they would also have had a trusting relationship with Finney, and even less likely that Finney would be willing to help someone who stole his friend Nick Szabo’s idea.
So we know that Nick Szabo has known Hal Finney since 1993, and we know that “Satoshi Nakamoto” trusted finney as the recipient of the first ever Bitcoin transaction. We also know that Nick Szabo laid the blueprints for a system identical to bitcoin in 2005, with a name quite similar to bitcoin, and asked someone to help him code it in 2008, 7 months before Bitcoin was announced.
Two independent forensic linguistic analyses have been performed in attempt to identify Satoshi Nakamoto. One study was conducted by an anonymous analyst, and the other was conducted by researches at Aston University.
The first researcher noted a very high probability that Szabo was the author of the Bitcoin white paper, observing numerous linguistic peculiarities observed between Szabo’s writings and the Bitcoin whitepaper.6
The Aston University researchers compared the writings of 13 individuals who have been suspected to be Satoshi Nakamoto to the writing of Nakamoto himself. They concluded that Szabo was “by far” the likeliest author of the Bitcoin whitepaper, and found him to be an “uncanny match.”7
One of the main objections that some have raised as to whether Szabo may be Satoshi cites Satoshi’s use of two spaces after a period, while Szabo uses one space on all of his blog posts. However in Szabo’s earlier writings, as in this 1993 email referenced above, he is seen using two spaces after periods. The return to using two spaces as Satoshi may have been a conscious attempt to thwart suspicion.
Another objection points out that Satoshi uses UK English spellings, while Szabo writes his blog in US English. However as Szabo indicates in the 1993 e-mail quoted above, he knows very well how to use these types of tricks to throw people off.
There is also a “philosophical” objection to revealing Satoshi’s identity. Many will claim that revealing Satoshi’s identity would be committing a cardinal sin of Bitcoin. For one, Satoshi clearly does not want his identity to be known. Second, this could destabilize the Bitcoin market. One facebook commentor noted, “Satoshi would have to pay a significant percent of his coins in order to afford taxes. The price of Bitcoin will drop a lot in this process […] Whoever outs Satoshi is in for major back-lash from the community. You would cost the top few Bitcoiners millions of dollars in losses.” While I doubt one blog post will be enough to send the IRS after Szabo, this point may be well taken. I would argue that, instead, if the market ever learns what Szabo plans to do with the coins, it would finally provide some certainty in the market regarding his large Bitcoin holdings (currently about 1/11th of the entire Bitcoin supply). If Szabo plans to never spend the coins, this would give a significant boost to the value of Bitcoin. If he indicates that he intends to “cash it out”, or exchange his Bitcoin for government currency, this would likely cause a crash in value – a crash that Szabo himself would not want to see.
Where Is He?
Amazingly, despite the visibility of his writing, and despite having an extensive track record of academic publications, Szabo himself has managed to remain nearly as elusive as his “Satoshi Nakamoto” pseudonym. There are no publically available photos of Szabo on the internet, and there are no recent reports of Szabo having been seen in public.
Why Does It Matter?
This question is certainly a matter of perspective. I will approach it as a libertarian who cares about Bitcoin because of the opportunity it presents to upset the monetary status quo.
In his communications, “Satoshi Nakamoto” kept his political messaging to a bare minimum, which may have been a deliberate attempt to not reveal too much about his identity. But behind the pseudonym, Nick Szabo is a brilliant economic and political historian and theoretician. He is very well versed in libertarian theory, having read the works of Mises, Hayek, Rothbard, Friedman and others, and publishing thoughtful critiques of many major works in libertarian thought. Szabo also had some unique and interesting ideas on how to create an efficient libertarian society, which coincides with anarcho-capitalist thought while maintaining some structured “governmental” functionality.
In short, Szabo has a lot to offer in terms of political and social insight. In fact, he’s better versed in libertarian theory than any libertarian I have ever encountered. His interest in creating a decentralized digital currency clearly stems from his passion for libertarian ideals.
As Bitcoin seeks mainstream adoption, many members of the community have noticed a trend toward more centralized solutions (e.g. Circle), and more support for government regulation in order to gain “legitimacy.” These sentiments, while growing in popularity, are in sharp contrast to what Szabo envisioned with his creation.
So while Szabo may have kept his political messaging to a minimum in order to shield his true identity, his pulpit as Satoshi Nakamoto would be an incredibly powerful tool to try to keep Bitcoin moving in the direction that he had envisioned, and in the direction that many libertarians also hope for.
Had Nakamoto been a basement-dwelling teen who merely stole Szabo’s ideas, then the case could be more easily made that Nakamoto’s identity in and of itself has little relevance. To the contrary, Szabo is nothing short of a genius, and would be in a position to offer invaluable insight and direction to the Bitcoin community.
But in the end, no journalist, and no blog post, will ever “out” Satoshi Nakamoto. While the evidence I’ve compiled here is freely available for all to see, Satoshi Nakamoto will not be outed until he himself decides to be. And if Satoshi is who he appears to be, then it seems he is more than capable of knowing when the time is right.