The New Yorker has a great story in its upcoming issue about Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency still trucking along after a glorious rise in value to $33 USD due to a spate of media-driven attention followed by a plunge to about $5 USD, where it stands now. The writer, Joshua Davis, attempted to find Bitcoin’s creator, the probably pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, who after years of prolific postings on the internet wrote to Bitcoin project lead Gavin Andresen in April that he had “moved on to other things.”
“He’s a world-class programmer, with a deep understanding of the C++ programming language,” Dan Kaminsky, one of the country’s top internet security experts, said of Mr. (or Ms.) Nakamoto. “He understands economics, cryptography and peer-to-peer networking. Either there’s a team of people who worked on this, or this guy is a genius.”
Mr. Davis started following Mr. Nakamoto’s trail of online writing, and noticed that, after an initial post announcing Bitcoin that used American spelling, the programmer used the British spelling, referred to London newspapers and at one point using the phrase “bloody hard”–suggesting he had lived or studied in the U.K. or Ireland.
Mr. Davis headed to the close-knit cryptography conference Crypto 2011 to find more traces of Nakamoto. He found nine attendees who fit the bill. Two were dismissive of Bitcoin; two had no history with large software projects. Then Mr. Davis started looking into a man named Michael Clear.
Clear was a young graduate student in cryptography at Trinity College in Dublin. Many of the other research students at Trinity posted profile pictures and phone numbers, but CLear’s page just had an e-mail address. A web search turned up three interesting details. In 2008, Clear was named the top computer-science undergraduate at Trinity. The next year, he was hired by Allied AIrish Banks to improve its currency-trading software, and he co-authored an academic paper on peer-to-peer technology. The paper employed British spelling. Clear was well-versed in economics, cryptography, and peer-to-peer networks.
(Mr. Clear was also 23 years old and fluent in C++.)
Finally I asked, “Are you Satoshi?”
He laughed, but didn’t respond. There was an awkward silence.
“If you’d like, I”d be happy the review the design [of Bitcoin] for you,” he offered instead. “I could let you know what I think.”
“Sure,” I said hesitantly. “Do you need me to send you a link to the code?”
“I think I can find it,” he said.
Mr. Clear sent Mr. Davis a lengthy opinion on Bitcoin’s strengths and weaknesses and suggested another cryptographer who matched Mr. Nakamoto’s profile, Vili Lehdonvirta, a Finnish programmer who used to make videogames and now studies virtual currencies. But when the New Yorker writer called, Mr. Lehdonvirta made a convincing denial. Which brought Mr. Davis back to Mr. Clear.
I told him that Lehdonvirta had made a convincing denial, and that every other lead I’d been working on had gone nowhere. I then took one more opportunity to question him and to explain all the reasons that I suspected his involvement. Clear responded that his work for Allied Irish Banks was brief and “of no importance.” He admitted that he was a good programmer, understood cryptography and appreciated the Bitcoin design. But, he said, economics had never been a particular interest of his. “I’m not Satoshi,” Clear said. “But even if I was I wouldn’t tell you.”
The point, Clear continued, is that Nakamoto’s identity shouldn’t matter … The currency is both real and elusive, just like its founder.
“You can’t kill it,” Clear said, with a touch of bravado. “Bitcoin would survive a nuclear attack.”