THE BAFFLING CASE OF BIT­COIN

“Fuck off! Ei­ther val­i­date or fuck off right now!” Broad, 45-year-old Aus­tralian com­puter sci­en­tist, Craig Wright, stands up and dis­plays the near-uni­ver­sal sign to tell some­one to fuck off (the V), back­ing it up (and clear­ing up any am­bi­gu­ity) by shoutin

GQ (Australia) - - INSIDE GQ - STU­ART MCGURK WORDS NICK WIL­SON PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

The mod­ern age’s big­gest mys­tery – who cre­ated bit­coin, and how did they build the fu­ture of bank­ing with­out any­one know­ing their name?

Un­til this point, the cre­ator of bit­coin was known only by the pseu­do­nym of Satoshi Nakamoto, os­ten­si­bly a 37-year-old man liv­ing in Ja­pan. Per­haps due to that, or per­haps due to his blog posts, which were pre­cise, calm and eru­dite, Nakamoto was imag­ined to be a gen­tle, even shy, in­di­vid­ual. It doesn’t seem to be the case. The ob­ject of Wright’s ire is Dr Nico­las T Cour­tois, a French-pol­ish ex­pert in cryp­tol­ogy, code-break­ing, vir­tual cur­ren­cies and specif­i­cally bit­coin. Here as GQ’S ex­pert wit­ness, he’s a big man who speaks in halt­ing English, wears a smart shirt and boasts trousers so blue they could be part of a cos­tume. The other peo­ple in the room are econ­o­mist and Bit­coin Foun­da­tion found­ing di­rec­tor Jon Ma­to­nis, the ex­pert wit­ness for the PR agency bro­ker­ing the in­ter­view, and its two rep­re­sen­ta­tives, at­tempt­ing not to look too pan­icked. We’ve been here for a grand to­tal of eight min­utes, and Wright’s al­ready taken is­sue with Dr Cour­tois’ sug­ges­tion that his ev­i­dence isn’t con­clu­sive. “You’ve got this one thing,” says Wright. “If you don’t like it, then fuck off.” There’s an au­di­ble groan from the PR side of the room. “No more bull­shit. Fuck off!” he shouts a few mo­ments later, his idea of a de­fence against the sug­ges­tion that his ev­i­dence could have been com­pro­mised or stolen. “It’s ab­so­lutely pos­si­ble,” coun­ters Dr Cour­tois. “Fuck off. Fuck off.” “I have over 100 papers in cryp­tog­ra­phy...” “Over. Fuck off.” With that, Wright walks out.

We’d first been ap­proached a month be­fore about the in­ter­view. The deal was this: the fa­bled in­ven­tor of bit­coin would un­veil him­self to be Craig Wright. The BBC and The Econ­o­mist would do news sto­ries; GQ would do the pro­file piece. The search for Nakamoto has be­come the dig­i­tal age’s hunt for the white whale – imag­ine if the in­ven­tor of Face­book was still un­known and you get the idea. Ev­ery so of­ten a pub­li­ca­tion would dis­patch an­other will­ing Cap­tain Ahab, and each would re­turn hav­ing spot­ted him, just rarely the same one. Ev­ery­one from The New Yorker (which named a stu­dent) to Vice (which named the US gov­ern­ment) had been on the hunt. The New York Times put an au­thor of a book about bit­coin’s cre­ation ( Dig­i­tal Gold’s Nathaniel Pop­per) on the case, who named cryp­tog­ra­pher Nick Sz­abo, and cor­nered him in a kitchen at a tech gath­er­ing, putting it to him that he was both Satoshi (“I’m not Satoshi”) and a col­lege pro­fes­sor (“And I’m not a col­lege pro­fes­sor”). Forbes tracked early bit­coin coder Hal Fin­ney down to his home, only to find him in­ca­pac­i­tated – Fin­ney had to spend the best part of a day writ­ing an email us­ing the move­ment of his eye­ball just to deny it (“I must be brief...”). Newsweek got par­tic­u­larly ex­cited last year af­ter think­ing it had fi­nally cracked it when it found some­one ac­tu­ally called Satoshi Nakamoto and ran it as a cover story. It turned out, how­ever, his name was pretty much the only ev­i­dence, and the story was so widely dis­cred­ited that Newsweek yanked it from its web­site. Wright’s the lat­est name in the frame, iden­ti­fied by par­al­lel sto­ries in Wired and Giz­modo last De­cem­ber, af­ter a hacker claimed to have re­trieved data from Wright’s com­puter that proved he was Satoshi and leaked it to them. The doc­u­ments – in­clud­ing a se­ries of emails, min­utes of meet­ings and le­gal doc­u­ments – all clearly pointed to Wright as the cre­ator of bit­coin. The Wired story ran with the bethedg­ing head­line: “Bit­coin’s Cre­ator Satoshi Nakamoto Is Prob­a­bly This Un­known Aus­tralian Ge­nius”. Yet only days later they both got cold feet: ev­i­dence emerged that some of the ma­te­rial might have been doc­tored, more still that some may be false; even some of his de­grees were called into ques­tion. The Aus­tralian tax au­thor­i­ties raided his house. Soon, a re­mark­ably strange al­ter­na­tive emerged: ei­ther Craig Wright was the mys­te­ri­ous cre­ator of bit­coin – or he was the per­pe­tra­tor of an in­cred­i­bly de­tailed and elab­o­rate hoax, all des­per­ately aimed at mak­ing peo­ple think he was.

The door swings open again. Wright comes back in the room, sits back down, takes a glug from his wa­ter bot­tle and slams it down on the ta­ble like he’s try­ing to ham­mer a nail. He’s breath­ing heav­ily. Dr Cour­tois at­tempts to calm the mood. “I’m not say­ing your ev­i­dence is in­valid, but it’s just one thing, I’m say­ing there are other sorts of ev­i­dence that peo­ple could ask from you, be­cause it’s just one thing...” It’s not long un­til Wright’s scream­ing again, the ar­gu­ment be­tween the two easy to un­der­stand but im­pos­si­ble to fol­low. Sen­tences like “Bloody re­gen­er­ate things on a sin­gle... show me where” and “There are fuck­ing thou­sands of trans­ac­tions on bit­coin ev­ery fuck­ing day signed with pissy fuck­ing bloody num­ber gen­er­a­tors” and “If I hear one more bull­shit com­ment about how I can do it with un­known nodes, you show me proof or you fuck off out” are com­mon. Oc­ca­sion­ally, it looks dan­ger­ously close to spilling over into phys­i­cal vi­o­lence that’d make for a tricky ex­pla­na­tion in the sub­se­quent po­lice re­port. But the gist is clear: in his ex­pert opin­ion, Dr Cour­tois doesn’t feel Wright’s ev­i­dence is con­clu­sive. Wright, in turn, is not pleased about this. “The other in­ter­views were easy,” he ex­claims. “This is bull­shit!” “You can val­i­date,” adds Wright. “Or you can fuck off.” “You have to un­der­stand,” in­ter­jects Jon Ma­to­nis, act­ing as peace­maker. “It’s taken us a long, long time for Craig to get to this point, you know.” The de­cid­edly in­de­ci­sive proof ses­sion ends. With his in­ter­roga­tors gone, Wright calms, speak­ing ex­pan­sively about bit­coin’s cre­ation and the per­sonal cost of it. The wife who left him, the friend’s death that made him quit it in 2011. If this is all a show, he’s a con­vinc­ing con man. De­spite ev­ery­thing, this could be Satoshi Nakamoto. Or per­haps not. Dr Cour­tois, af­ter re-ex­am­in­ing the ev­i­dence, writes in an email, “Craig has cheated us. It’s a hoax. I have proof.”

THE SEARCH FOR BIT­COIN’S IN­VEN­TOR HAS BE­COME THE DIG­I­TAL AGE’S HUNT FOR THE WHITE WHALE.

To ex­plain what bit­coin is, it’s per­haps eas­ier to start with what bit­coin isn’t. It is not, strictly speak­ing, a cur­rency. Whereas the value of a cur­rency rises and falls at the mercy of in­ter­est rates, in­fla­tion, trade, global down­turns, whims of gov­ern­ment and, at the most ex­treme, sim­ply how much of it there is in cir­cu­la­tion (print too much, as Zim­babwe found at the turn of the cen­tury, and it be­comes worth­less), bit­coin is de­signed to be a fi­nite re­source, and is there­fore clas­si­fied by the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment as a com­mod­ity. New bit­coins are cre­ated each day, but the rate at which they’re pro­duced will con­tinue to halve un­til, by the year 2140, 21 mil­lion have been cre­ated, at which point there will be no more. In this way, it’s more like gold. It’s not the first ‘vir­tual’ cur­rency, but it is the first suc­cess­ful one. There have been the likes of dig­i­cash, which used ‘cy­ber­bucks’ (launched 1990, bank­rupt 1998), beenz, which used a points sys­tem (launched 1998, de­funct 2001), and e-gold, which used a dig­i­tal cur­rency re­deemable for gold (launched 1996, ev­ery­one in­volved ar­rested by the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment in 2007). All failed for dif­fer­ent rea­sons, but the cru­cial one is trust. Dig­i­cash and beenz failed be­cause not enough peo­ple used them. This is rarely a prob­lem with dol­lars. E-gold failed be­cause hack­ers steal­ing money be­came wide­spread, plus it’s ac­tu­ally il­le­gal to cre­ate your own cur­rency in most coun­tries, not least the US. This is some­thing Hawaii res­i­dent Bernard von Nothaus also found to his cost in 2009, af­ter he was ar­rested by the FBI and charged with con­spir­acy against the United States for cre­at­ing and dis­tribut­ing his dis­tinctly old-school ‘lib­erty dol­lars’ – he’d minted his own coins and printed his own notes. As with all cur­ren­cies, bit­coin is only valu­able be­cause peo­ple think it is. This is some­thing bit­coin de­vel­op­ers call a “col­lec­tive hal­lu­ci­na­tion”. The idea is that if ev­ery­one has the same hal­lu­ci­na­tion, it is, for all in­tents and pur­poses, real. We can be rea­son­ably sure a dol­lar to­day is still a dol­lar to­mor­row or next year. A bank may be robbed, but no one is go­ing to rob all the banks. The worry with a dig­i­tal cur­rency is that a sin­gle hacker could crack the source code and take the lot. But even here there’s a co­nun­drum – steal it all and it be­comes worth­less. Imag­ine steal­ing all the money in the world and you start to ap­pre­ci­ate the irony. On all these fronts, bit­coin has proved re­mark­ably re­silient. Launched in 2009, it works us­ing a dis­trib­uted data­base known as the ‘blockchain’ – es­sen­tially a con­stantly up­dated record of ev­ery bit­coin trans­ac­tion, shared across ev­ery com­puter on the bit­coin net­work. There’s no cen­tral hub, and so no of­fice to raid (mu­sic and film piracy works in a sim­i­lar way and is sim­i­larly tricky to squish). In a stroke, it solved a key prob­lem of elec­tronic money – the ‘dou­ble-spend’ dilemma. With bits and bytes, what’s to stop you copy­ing money sev­eral times over, rather than ac­tu­ally mov­ing it? Banks solve this by act­ing as trusted mid­dle­men who main­tain an elec­tronic ledger. Now, ev­ery­one holds the ledger and ev­ery­one’s com­put­ers do the hard work (the re­ward for leav­ing your com­puter on is a chance of win­ning the newly cre­ated bit­coins – the process is called ‘min­ing’). Put an­other way: the in­ter­net is an ex­change of in­for­ma­tion, some of it true, some of it not. Satoshi’s code har­nessed it by en­sur­ing an ex­change of facts. The cen­tral code has also shown it­self to be un­crack­able. This is where Satoshi’s rep­u­ta­tion was born. Dan Kamin­sky, an in­ter­net se­cu­rity ex­pert who is no­to­ri­ous for once dis­cov­er­ing a flaw in the in­ter­net that would have al­lowed a skilled hacker to shut it down, fa­mously tried to crack bit­coin, but failed. He came to a sim­ple con­clu­sion: ei­ther Satoshi was ac­tu­ally a team of peo­ple or he was a ge­nius. That was 2011. To­day, it re­mains as bul­let­proof as ever. The first ever real-world bit­coin trans­ac­tion took place on May 22, 2010, when Florida pro­gram­mer Las­zlo Hanyecz made an of­fer on an in­ter­net fo­rum: he would pay 10,000 bit­coins for some­one to buy him two piz­zas from lo­cal fran­chise, Papa John’s. He was taken up on the of­fer by a man in Eng­land who paid with his credit card: two Papa John’s piz­zas duly ar­rived and Hanyecz sent the bit­coins over. At the time, the 10,000 were worth around $25. To­day, they would be worth $7.6m. Ever since, it’s been cel­e­brated an­nu­ally as ‘bit­coin pizza day’, where peo­ple raise a slice to the most ex­pen­sive take­away in his­tory. For quite some time, bit­coin ef­fec­tively had no value, but two events were to change that. On June 1, 2011, Gawker pub­lished a story about the Silk Road – a dark web mar­ket­place where drugs and firearms were sold. The story men­tioned these items were be­ing pur­chased us­ing bit­coin, a dig­i­tal cur­rency they called “un­trace­able”. This was not en­tirely ac­cu­rate – the blockchain ledger is en­tirely trans­par­ent. The prob­lem was, it didn’t link back to a per­son un­less they were to con­vert their bit­coins back into reg­u­lar cur­rency, at which point, it did. Re­gard­less, the story put bit­coin on the map, and, within days, the value of a sin­gle bit­coin soared to $25. Later, the ar­rest of Silk Road’s founder – Ross Ul­bricht, a 32-yearold from Austin, Texas who’d gone un­der the pseu­do­nym Dread Pi­rate Roberts – caused it to sky­rocket. The FBI seized more than 144,000 bit­coins – worth $30m at the time and nearly $110m to­day – and sub­se­quently told a US Se­nate com­mit­tee hear­ing in Novem­ber 2013 it was a “le­git­i­mate fi­nan­cial ser­vice”. Briefly, the price soared to $1360 for a sin­gle bit­coin, be­fore lev­el­ling out in the high hun­dreds. Still, there have been prob­lems. As bit­coins are es­sen­tially just data stored on your com­puter rather than in a bank, they’re re­mark­ably easy to lose. Hor­ror sto­ries abound. Mem­ory sticks worth thou­sands over­writ­ten, com­put­ers worth for­tunes junked. James How­ells, an IT worker from Great Bri­tain, lost 7500 bit­coins in 2013 when he ac­ci­den­tally threw out an old hard disk. It’s cur­rently some­where in a Welsh land­fill and worth more than $5.7m. Re­gard­less, more than 100,000 com­pa­nies now ac­cept di­rect pay­ment in bit­coin. You can book a hol­i­day (Ex­pe­dia), sign up for dat­ing (Okcu­pid), buy ev­ery­thing from a com­puter (Dell) to lin­gerie (Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret). You can even travel into space (Sir Richard Bran­son has said his com­pany will ac­cept bit­coin pay­ment for Vir­gin Galac­tic). Ja­pan has even de­clared it a le­gal cur­rency. It could just be the start. Cameron Win­klevoss – one of the twins in­volved in the dis­puted foun­da­tion of Face­book and the sub­ject of the 2010 film The So­cial Net­work – has, along with his twin, in­vested most of his for­tune in bit­coin, the broth­ers

cur­rently es­ti­mated to own one per cent of all bit­coin in cir­cu­la­tion. He’s sug­gested that, even­tu­ally, a sin­gle bit­coin could rise in value to more than $40,000, putting the cost of that 2010 pizza at slightly less than half a bil­lion dol­lars (at which point you’d hope Hanyecz got his pre­ferred top­pings). Eco­nomic pres­sures such as Don­ald Trump’s Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion and the Brexit vote – events that weak­ened the dol­lar, pound and euro – have seen bit­coin’s value soar again, eas­ily crest­ing $700 per coin. Bit­coin was cre­ated by Nakamoto in the after­math of the 2008 global fi­nan­cial cri­sis to be free of such out­side in­flu­ences – and it was prov­ing to be the case. Uber threat­ens to elim­i­nate cab of­fices, but bit­coin is threat­en­ing to elim­i­nate banks. It has, seem­ingly, be­come the most trusted form of money in the world. Craig Wright is a com­puter sci­en­tist, se­rial en­tre­pre­neur (of many fail­ing com­pa­nies, at least one of which, Hotwire, has gone into ad­min­is­tra­tion) and se­rial col­lec­tor of var­i­ous de­grees – even if he ad­mits to ex­ag­ger­at­ing some on his Linkedin pro­file. “It was all piss taken at my­self,” he says, sug­gest­ing a cu­ri­ous sense of hu­mour. He ap­par­ently has qual­i­fi­ca­tions in sub­jects rang­ing from the­ol­ogy to statis­tics, en­gi­neer­ing to law. He is also un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Aus­tralian tax au­thor­i­ties – late last year, they raided his house over tax re­bates his com­pa­nies have claimed, of which Wright says, “We’ve been in ne­go­ti­a­tion with them for years – it’s not a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” Dr Cour­tois says Wright could have been Satoshi. “He has the skills, he’s been at the crypto con­fer­ences.” But he warns of two things. One: “It’s quite pos­si­ble it’s a col­lec­tive cre­ation.” And two: “You’d be a fool to claim you’re Satoshi. Not for a crim­i­nal con­nec­tion, but a crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity con­nec­tion. He could be pros­e­cuted.” Dr Cour­tois’ test is cryp­to­graphic. The claim can be ver­i­fied to be true or false – no shades of grey. The real Satoshi didn’t just cre­ate the code of bit­coin. He owns, ac­cord­ing to a widely cited in­ter­net study by bit­coin se­cu­rity con­sul­tant Ser­gio Demian Lerner, around one mil­lion him­self. At to­day’s value, that’s more than $761m. Think of ev­ery bit­coin in ex­is­tence as a Tetris stack – the ear­li­est sit at the bot­tom. To prove he’s Satoshi, Wright has to spend, and there­fore move, one of the ear­li­est bit­coins in ex­is­tence. In­stead, he chooses to ‘sign’ one – es­sen­tially show­ing the note, rather than hand­ing it over for in­spec­tion. The ev­i­dence that Wright is Satoshi seems to be evenly bal­anced, if con­fus­ing and con­tra­dic­tory. Satoshi’s a na­tive English speaker – his writ­ing re­mark­ably flu­ent in his many blog posts (tick). He uses terms like “bloody hard” and “flat” rather than “apart­ment”, sug­gest­ing an English, or at least a Com­mon­wealth, ori­gin (tick). He em­bed­ded one of the first, un­spend­able, coins – known as the ge­n­e­sis block – with the Times head­line from Jan­uary 2009 about a sec­ond Gordon Brown bailout, sug­gest­ing a lib­er­tar­ian na­ture (Wright is a for­mer sub­scriber to the Cypher­punks mail­ing list) and a Bri­tish press reader (en­tirely pos­si­ble). He wrote in a par­tic­u­lar code (C++) and used a par­tic­u­lar no­ta­tion that was pop­u­lar in the late ’80s and early ’90s, likely plac­ing him in his for­ties (tick). And, fi­nally, he packed up and left it all be­hind. At 5:22am AEDT on De­cem­ber 13, 2010, seven days af­ter a plea not to use bit­coin to do­nate to Wik­ileaks (“the heat it would bring would likely de­stroy us at this stage”), Satoshi Nakamoto posted his fi­nal mes­sage and dis­ap­peared.

The ques­tion re­mains: why come out now af­ter six years away? “I don’t want to come out,” says Wright. “But peo­ple in my or­gan­i­sa­tion keep go­ing, ‘We’ve got to do this.’” With Dr Cour­tois in the room, Wright says it’s due to his fam­ily – “so they don’t get painted with this shit.” This is new. What or­gan­i­sa­tion? There’s a pause. “I have a nice big or­gan­i­sa­tion. We have of­fices in dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Lon­don. No one knows who the fuck we are, and I like that.” There are ru­mours of a su­per­com­puter in Ice­land. “Yes... I don’t want to talk about where it is... it’s not in Aus­tralia.” But is it in Ice­land? “If I an­swer that ques­tion I get in big trou­ble,” he says. “Peo­ple are go­ing to go, ‘Craig, you’re not sup­posed to talk about those things.’” He looks over at the PRS. “At the end of the day, there is a com­pany, peo­ple work­ing for me. There are about 30 peo­ple in Lon­don. They don’t want to be known. Not be­cause they don’t want to be seen with me, but be­cause... be­cause this is what they do.” He won’t say ex­actly what that is. Far from com­ing clean, ev­ery re­ply only opens up fur­ther ques­tions – ones he then re­fuses to an­swer. He is curt in a half-smil­ing way that sug­gests he knows more, but won’t share it. In some ways, he’s al­most child­like. He of­ten leans back and straight­ens his tie, like a bank man­ager con­duct­ing an ap­praisal. With Dr Cour­tois out of the room, he bris­tles at how un­fairly he’s been treated. He says he doesn’t need to spend any bit­coins to prove who he is, be­cause sim­ply sign­ing one shows he has ac­cess, and so, “It would be like I’ve stolen the Mona Lisa, put it on my wall, took a cou­ple of pic­tures, then put it back.” It barely needs point­ing out that a Po­laroid of the Mona Lisa would not con­firm one owned it. Early bit­coin de­vel­oper Gregory Maxwell claims that the doc­u­ments leaked to Wired had been edited to make it look like he was Satoshi. “Bull­shit from Maxwell that we had to get dis­proven – the codes are fuck­ing out there.” The per­son be­hind the leak, he says, is a for­mer em­ployee at­tempt­ing to ex­tort him. “I have my sus­pi­cions, but I don’t have proof, so I can’t say.” Cu­ri­ously, it’s only when he speaks about his pri­vate life, about how much bit­coin’s cre­ation had cost him, that he re­laxes and calms. Stroking his tie once more, fi­nally the words be­gin to flow. This is how bit­coin started – at least, as far as he tells it. He’d been work­ing on bit­coin, on and off, he says, for a decade. Tin­ker­ing here and there. He’d ini­tially got into com­put­ers through his grand­fa­ther, who let him use his ter­mi­nal in the base­ment. His fa­ther, says Wright, openly dis­liked him. “We didn’t get on. I haven’t spo­ken to my fa­ther in a long time. He never liked what I did, never liked my life.” He col­lected de­grees for fun, and soon de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion as the go-to guy for a range of com­put­ing con­sul­tancy roles at start-ups. It was only when he was let go, he says, from his role at ac­coun­tancy firm BDO

in Jan­uary 2008, when the fi­nan­cial cri­sis started to hit, that he fully de­voted him­self to it. “They gave me this whack of money, enough not to work, not for­ever, but from then on, I could ded­i­cate my time.” Wright hun­kered down at his house in a re­mote farm in Port Mac­quarie, sur­rounded by screens, and set to work. He had help, he says, no­tably from a friend called Dave Kleiman. As a for­mer army of­fi­cer and Palm Beach County Sheriff, Kleiman was not your usual com­puter geek. Af­ter suf­fer­ing a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent in 1995, which left him wheelchair­bound, he be­came a com­puter au­to­di­dact. CNN and ABC called on him reg­u­larly to dish out ad­vice on se­cu­rity and pass­words. He had so many three-let­ter qual­i­fi­ca­tions af­ter his name that his nick­name be­came Dave Mis­sis­sippi. “He helped a lot,” says Wright. “He knew who I was.” The leaked doc­u­ments, if ac­cu­rate, re­flect this. An email sent from Wright to Kleiman on March 12, 2008 brings it up abruptly: “I need your help edit­ing a pa­per...” By Oc­to­ber 2008, the now-fa­mous white pa­per was pub­lished: “Bit­coin: A Peer-toPeer Elec­tronic Cash Sys­tem”. By Jan­uary 2009, the free soft­ware was re­leased on­line. He says it con­sumed him. He didn’t look for a job. Soon, his mar­riage started fail­ing. “It wasn’t the best way to main­tain a mar­riage,” he says. His wife would ask, ‘Craig, what the fuck are you go­ing to do to pay the rent?’ He would sim­ply re­ply, ‘We’re fine.’ He wasn’t. The value of bit­coin was still on the floor. He re­mort­gaged his house to keep go­ing. By 2011, Wright says, ev­ery­thing fell apart. His wife de­cided to leave him (“Some of that was bit­coin’s fault”). Kleiman had fallen in the shower in late 2010, and was sub­se­quently in and out of hospi­tal (“Dave was my best friend. He kept me sane... That was hard”). The bur­den of be­ing Satoshi, he says, be­came too great. He left it all be­hind. The search for Satoshi has been dif­fi­cult pre­cisely be­cause of his bril­liance. He would have to be an ex­pert in many fields – a deep un­der­stand­ing of cod­ing, eco­nom­ics, fi­nan­cial mar­kets and ad­vanced cryp­tol­ogy. Hardly any­one fits the bill. A team – or a ge­nius. “I know peo­ple want me to be some­thing else,” he says. “Peo­ple want me to be an aca­demic. I’m not. I’m an ap­plied sci­en­tist and an ap­plied engi­neer. I take dif­fer­ent ideas and stick them to­gether. Edi­son didn’t in­vent new the­ory. And Ben Franklin didn’t in­vent new the­ory. Tesla didn’t. Steve Jobs didn’t.” While study­ing ad­vanced eco­nom­ics for one of his many qual­i­fi­ca­tions, Wright came across the fa­mous es­say, ‘I, Pen­cil’, writ­ten in 1958 by Leonard Read. It con­tains a propo­si­tion – the pen­cil may seem like a sim­ple ob­ject, yet “not a sin­gle per­son on the face of this earth knows how to make me.” From the wood to the tools to chop the wood, to the tools to make those tools, to the graphite, the rub­ber and the me­tal, a sin­gle pen­cil is a co­op­er­a­tion of thou­sands of ex­perts in dozens of fields, stretch­ing back in time, from across the world. But Wright took this as a chal­lenge. He wanted to make a pen­cil from scratch. “And I couldn’t cheat. You can’t go out and buy a chisel. You have to build the tools. And you can’t start by build­ing iron tools. To make them you need cop­per tools. And for cop­per tools you need stone tools.” He spent years on it, even build­ing his own kiln to make the graphite. In he end, he made five pen­cils that cost him more than $1200 each. “That’s prob­a­bly an­other rea­son I got di­vorced.” Af­ter a story like that, it’s easy to be­lieve Wright could well be Satoshi. De­spite him not mov­ing early bit­coins. De­spite the un­con­vinc­ing an­swers about his rea­sons for com­ing out (what was this com­pany?). De­spite the unau­thored pa­per Wright pro­duced to dis­prove Maxwell’s claims about the ori­gin of the leaked doc­u­ments (“It doesn’t say ‘By Craig Wright’ on the piece as such,” says Wright’s PR firm, “but as the whole pack is called ‘Craig Wright’ and re­lates to him, it seems clear it’s his piece”). De­spite a source, who asked not to be named, seem­ingly con­firm­ing a com­pany had forced Wright to say he’s Satoshi: “They’re big play­ers, but they want him to come out as Satoshi Nakamoto, ba­si­cally in order to get more grav­i­tas.” Also, for a man who sup­pos­edly has that many coins (“I’m not spend­ing them,” he says. “They’re go­ing nowhere”), he’s weirdly boast­ful about what car he drives (“I own an i8, a BMW, a nice fast car. I get speed­ing tick­ets but I pay them”) or the restau­rants he eats at (“I’ve been to three of Gordon Ramsay’s so far”). Be­cause doesn’t that pen­cil anec­dote just sum him up? The ge­nius who’d have to mas­ter so many skills and the man who’d have to put them all to­gether.

When the judge­ment comes, it’s swift and un­for­giv­ing. This tends to hap­pen on the in­ter­net: damna­tion goes vi­ral. Red­dit fo­rums light up. He’s ly­ing. The world quickly re­alises what Dr Cour­tois has al­ready dis­cov­ered: Wright, and his cryp­to­graphic proof, are full of shit – his early bit­coin trans­ac­tion was one that had al­ready been signed by Satoshi years ago. Any­one could have done it. To use his own Mona Lisa metaphor, he didn’t present a Po­laroid of the paint­ing on his wall – he pre­sented some­one else’s old Po­laroid. From the BBC to The New York Times to The Guardian, claims of a hoax pro­lif­er­ated. Wright coun­ters – he’ll pro­vide “ex­tra­or­di­nary proof” to match his “ex­tra­or­di­nary claim”. It never comes.

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Days later, Wright re­leases a state­ment on his web­site: “I know now that I am not strong enough for this. I’m sorry.” Var­i­ous ex­perts work­ing on bit­coin-re­lated projects chime in. “If he is who he claims to be, there’s an easy way to prove it,” says Pavel Matveev, of bit­coin start-up Wirex, which is work­ing on a bit­coin debit card. “It seems like he’s Satoshi Nakamoto,” says Frank Schuil, of bit­coin spend­ing plat­form start-up Safello, “but he has one hell of a rea­son not to re­veal it.” “It’s a strange play ei­ther way,” says Dr James Smith of El­lip­tic, a bit­coin com­pany that iden­ti­fies il­licit ac­tiv­ity for fi­nan­cial in­sti­tu­tions and law en­force­ment agen­cies. “I think he’d be nuts if it isn’t him, but I think he’d be nuts if it is as well.” An­other writer, An­drew O’ha­gan, has been chron­i­cling Wright’s story from the in­side, af­ter an of­fer by mys­te­ri­ous com­pany ncrypt. The peo­ple be­hind ncrypt, it turns out, res­cued Wright. His busi­nesses were fail­ing, he was in trou­ble with the Aus­tralian tax au­thor­i­ties and he owed his lawyers mil­lions. They of­fered an out – they’d buy up his com­pa­nies and set­tle his debts. In re­turn, he’d work on patents linked to the un­der­ly­ing blockchain tech­nol­ogy be­hind bit­coin. And he would pub­licly out him­self as Satoshi. The pack­age, they felt, was worth bil­lions. They planned to sell to Google. Co­in­ci­dence or not, while O’ha­gan’s writ­ing his ar­ti­cle, doc­u­ments link­ing Wright to Satoshi are leaked to Wired and Giz­modo, ex­plain­ing why a man worth more than three quar­ters of a bil­lion should need such a bailout – most of his bit­coins are held in a trust, a doc­u­ment sug­gests. Wright can’t sell them un­til 2020. It’s one of many ‘facts’ that don’t quite add up. The patent story is true enough – ncrypt’s com­pany di­rec­tor is a Mr Robert Macgre­gor. He, in turn, is linked to an um­brella com­pany called EITC Hold­ings Lim­ited. Be­tween Fe­bru­ary 23 and April 29 this year, they filed 51 patents, all linked to blockchain tech­nol­ogy. They are, in essence, try­ing to cor­ner the mar­ket in the new in­ter­net of fact ex­change. That said, ex­perts are scep­ti­cal that the patents will be suc­cess­ful – ncrypt’s re­ally sell­ing Satoshi. The doc­u­ments show plans

to use the tech­nol­ogy for ev­ery­thing from vot­ing to pay­roll, from money lend­ing to mu­sic and film soft­ware to erad­i­cate piracy. But many other claims by Wright don’t stand up to scru­tiny. Take his tragic story about his friend Dave Kleiman. Af­ter the fall in the shower that De­cem­ber day – which saw Wright, so he says, leave the man­tle of Satoshi be­hind him – Kleiman’s con­di­tion wors­ened. He de­vel­oped sores, which be­came in­fected with golden staph; he was in and out of hospi­tal and had mul­ti­ple op­er­a­tions. Yet ev­ery time, he’d get right back to his com­puter, hold­ing up for days at a time, rarely go­ing out. Af­ter dis­miss­ing him­self from hospi­tal for a fi­nal time, he was found dead in his wheel­chair on April 27, 2013. Ac­cord­ing to the Palm Beach County Med­i­cal Ex­am­iner Of­fice, his body was de­com­pos­ing; there was blood and fae­cal mat­ter; an empty bot­tle of al­co­hol and a loaded hand­gun next to him. Ap­par­ently, he died pen­ni­less – his Palm Beach home was in fore­clo­sure. It’s been sug­gested, how­ever, that as one of the founders of bit­coin, he ac­tu­ally passed away with some 350,000 bit­coins sit­ting on an en­crypted USB drive that he kept on him at all times. “Yes, that’s ac­cu­rate, based on the in­for­ma­tion that I have,” says Jon Ma­to­nis. But the ques­tion re­mains: why didn’t he cash out to get pri­vate health care? Speak­ing to O’ha­gan, Wright con­firms Kleiman did in­deed have 350,000 bit­coins. Yet in ex­plain­ing why he didn’t sell, Wright says, “It wasn’t worth much then. Dave died a week be­fore the value went up by 25 times.” O’ha­gan then adds, “He [Wright] em­pha­sised some­thing he said the com­men­ta­tors never un­der­stood – for a long time, bit­coin wasn’t worth any­thing and they con­stantly needed money.” But it’s not re­motely true. At the time of Dave Kleiman’s death, on April 26, 2013, bit­coin’s value was at $124.50, mak­ing his stash of 350,000 worth more than $43.5m. The next week, mean­while, rather than hav­ing gone up in value 25 times as Wright claims, it went down to $95.60. In fact, it wasn’t un­til weeks later that it had even reached the same level. It was baffling. Why lie? What was be­ing hid­den here? One of the few solid things that came from the real Satoshi are his blog posts, now archived at satoshi. nakamo­toin­sti­tute.org. He writes about the task at hand – per­sonal de­tails are vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent. Yet the most telling thing isn’t what the posts are about, but when they were posted. In more than 500 posts, Satoshi al­most never pub­lished be­tween the hours of 3pm and 9pm AEST, sug­gest­ing that’s when he slept. Wright says: “I was up at all times al­ways do­ing stuff, as peo­ple have seen I was around the clock... ” Yet those pub­lish­ing hours would sug­gest that Wright had a truly bizarre sleep­ing pat­tern of 3pm to 9pm. Trans­pose those same tim­ings to Florida, how­ever, where Kleiman lived, and it be­comes 1am to 7am. Kleiman is ru­moured to have died with­out giv­ing any­one, not least his fam­ily, the drive’s en­cryp­tion keys, mean­ing no one can ac­cess them. At to­day’s prices, the bit­coin on it would be worth $266m. If Kleiman – and not Wright – was the real Satoshi, it would ex­plain why Wright didn’t move them. Maybe no one could. It would also mean he stepped away from be­ing Satoshi af­ter first be­ing ad­mit­ted to hospi­tal, as his health be­gan to fail. Kleiman’s for­mer col­league at Com­puter Foren­sics LLC, Pa­trick Paige, con­tacted for his in­put, asks af­ter Craig Wright: “Is he on sui­cide watch yet?” His tone doesn’t sug­gest con­cern. Per­haps most bizarrely, the rea­son Wright fi­nally gives for not want­ing to move the early bit­coins, thereby prov­ing be­yond all doubt he’s Satoshi, is an ar­ti­cle with the head­line: “UK Law En­force­ment Sources Hint At Im­pend­ing Craig Wright Ar­rest”. He sobs about this. He says, “The Brits have got their own ver­sion of Guan­tanamo Bay.” He says he’s damned if he does, he’s damned if he doesn’t. He’ll be seen as a fraud, or he’ll go to jail. Yet it turns out this isn’t true ei­ther. The story he’s re­fer­ring to ap­peared on spe­cial­ist bit­coin web­site bit­coin­ist.net. Yet go to that link now and it starts with an edi­tor’s note: “The Sil­i­co­nan­gle piece cited in this ar­ti­cle was pro­duced by an im­pos­tor site pos­ing as the real Sil­i­co­nan­gle.” Some­one had gone to the ef­fort of cre­at­ing a fake web­site to cre­ate that story, the only dif­fer­ence be­ing an ex­tra “L” in the name. Se­nior edi­tor at Bit­coin­ist, Evan Fag­gart, de­tails the amount of time the Wright story was on their web­site be­fore the edi­tor’s note was added. “No more than 24 hours.” Twenty-four hours. Is it fea­si­ble that Wright clicked on this link once then never again? A man sob­bing at the prospect of be­ing locked up in what­ever he as­sumes the Bri­tish Guan­tanamo Bay to be? Would he not check back? One thing the edi­tors at both sites agree on – the fake site, which has since been taken down, was an un­canny replica of the real thing. It would have taken sub­stan­tial com­puter skills, and no small ef­fort. “I’ve never seen any­thing like it,” says Fag­gart. One line in O’ha­gan’s piece, then, feels par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent, when the act seems to slip. When Wright seems to ad­mit he was ac­tu­ally Satoshi’s side­kick. Wright makes the point that he wrote all the new patents him­self and “not just Dave”.

As Wright’s claims un­ravel, New York plays host to a United Na­tions con­fer­ence called ID2020 and 400 peo­ple from NGOS, tech firms and nearly ev­ery bank in the world. It’s the brain­child of John Edge, a for­mer in­vest­ment banker who, on May 4, 2013, was set up on a blind date with a girl who asked him, “All this money stuff, fine, but what are you do­ing to make a dif­fer­ence?” He didn’t have an an­swer, but he did have an idea. He knew how money flowed through com­puter sys­tems. Specif­i­cally, how the FIX (Fi­nan­cial In­for­ma­tion ex­change) pro­to­col rad­i­cally changed trad­ing when it was in­tro­duced in 1992, all but elim­i­nat­ing hu­man er­rors. “What it did was turn a telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions net­work into a trans­ac­tions net­work.” He re­alised Satoshi Nakam­ato, with the shared ledger that un­der­pinned bit­coin, had done the same for the in­ter­net. But how to use it? He’d had meet­ings with global telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions play­ers, with ma­jor banks, but the re­ac­tion was al­ways the same: don’t be stupid. Isn’t bit­coin that thing for drug deal­ers? Only now, he had his light­bulb mo­ment. What if there was an al­tru­is­tic use for it? The bit­coin tech­nol­ogy, the shared ledger, was in­cor­rupt­ible. It sat with no sin­gle gov­ern­ment. He knew 1.5 bil­lion peo­ple around the world didn’t have iden­ti­ties on pa­per – and with­out birth cer­tifi­cates, they could have no bank ac­count, and were at greater risk of kid­nap, traf­fick­ing and abuse. Edge is a like­able, plain-speak­ing man. He’s also not a shy one. On his sec­ond date, he said to the girl, “I think this sys­tem can get a bil­lion peo­ple a bank ac­count.” Bit­coin may change bank­ing, but it’s the un­der­ly­ing tech­nol­ogy that may truly end up chang­ing the world. Even here, of course, there’s a fi­nal irony. That a man who sat in his house and in­vented the fu­ture, who never wanted his iden­tity known and whose real name we’ll likely never know – per­haps Kleiman, who died alone – may end up pro­vid­ing iden­ti­ties for bil­lions. When Satoshi first went miss­ing, a pop­u­lar tagline among bit­coin’s early adopters sug­gested they knew it was for the best; that per­haps one man would be too small for it, the in­ven­tion was too big. It’s a line re­peated again and again at the United Na­tions. “We are all Satoshi now.”

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