For the last week, the world of Bitcoin has been turned upside down by a raging debate inspired by Australian Craig Wright who claimed to be the currency's mysterious creator Satoshi Nakamoto. Two Bitcoin experts said Wright had proved privately to them, cryptographically, that he was Nakamoto, but Wright failed to offer public proof of his claim, offering instead deceptive "proof" that was quickly deemed a scam by experts. Wright then promised irrefutable proof of being the true father of the digital currency, but then instead erased his website, along with its debunked sets of “proofs,” leaving only this message:
Wright, the Australian computer scientist/holder of purportedly twelve different university degrees, had been under mounting pressure to produce irrefutable mathematical proof that he was Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s anonymous creator. Wright supposedly did so in a series of carefully controlled interactions with journalists and Bitcoin core developer Gavin Andresen. The news of Satoshi’s unveiling, seemingly verified by one of Bitcoin’s most prominent insiders, quickly made breathless headlines across the world.
It then took only moments for the white-hot skepticism of crypto experts to pounce on the many, many holes in Wright’s claims. These were laid out by several people with demonstrated knowledge, especially succinctly by Robert Graham: Satoshi: how Craig Wright's deception worked.
There were other red flags to skeptics aside from the lack of crypto proof:
- that Craig Wright’s writings did not appear in any way to recall Satoshi’s elegant white paper;
- the tightly controlled circumstances under which Wright had supposedly provided his proof to people he had approached in private, non-disclosure agreements in tow; and
- Wright’s strange assertion that the reason he wanted to out himself as the person at the center of one of the internet’s most fervently pursued mysteries was because he wanted to be left alone.
Amazingly, not even these carefully choreographed photos, which appear to be totally convincing, were enough to persuade cryptographers who insisted on mathematically airtight proof that could be easily produced in minutes:
Wright then promised that he would provide irrefutable proof of his claims by moving some early bitcoins known to belong to Satoshi. Some experts said that even this would not be iron-clad proof of Wright’s assertions. Had he moved the coins it would only have shown that he had gained access to them. The only true proof would be to sign a message with Satoshi’s private key.
In the end the coins were not moved, explained in this post at the BBC:
On Monday evening, I suggested to Wright's PR firm that if he could send me a fraction of a coin from an early Bitcoin block - which of course I would return - that might show he had Satoshi's keys. But Wright's team came up with a different plan on Wednesday afternoon.
They sent me a draft blog in which he outlined a scheme that would see Matonis, Andresen and the BBC all send small amounts of Bitcoin to the address used in the first ever transaction. Then he would send it back, in what would be the first outgoing transactions from the block since January 2009.
We went ahead with our payments - I sent 0.017BTC (about £5), which you can still see in the online records. Matonis and Andresen sent similar amounts.
Then we waited. And waited. Then my phone rang - with the news that the whole operation was "on hold", with no reason given.
After this Wright updated his website with its farewell message, leaving nothing but even stronger doubts among observers that any of this story was ever true to begin with.
This whole strange episode raises the obvious question of why Wright would go to such great lengths to try convince the world that he created Bitcoin?
Reddit’s army of determined sleuths have been all over this all week, turning up documents left and right in support of the theory that Wright needs to convince the Australian Taxation Office that he is the creator of Bitcoin in order to get out of a enormous debt obligation he owes the authority. The paper trail highlights a complex, obfuscating set of shell companies Wright controls around the world, which ultimately add up to him having a multimillion dollar liability for claimed research and development credits related to his various computing and security concerns. Somehow, among all this, proving that he is in possession of $400 million worth of Satoshi coins could get him off this hook, for which Wright is being investigated.
This bizarre series of events has left a wake of collateral damage. Gavin Andresen had his access to Bitcoin’s code revoked, and his reputation has suffered enormous damage. He has since walked back his initial support of Wright’s proofs, but how someone with such intimate, hands-on knowledge of Bitcoin’s creation could have been duped in an elaborate hoax is difficult to make sense of.
This has resulted in a fresh crop of Bitcoin conspiracy theories attempting to explain whatever it is that just happened. Was bitcoin actually invented by Wright’s deceased associate, Dave Kleiman? Is this all an elaborate ruse to flush out the real Satoshi? Is the real Satoshi using Craig Wright as a front to protect their true identity? Is it a plot to discredit the bitcoin Core team, including Andresen, when the blockchain is riven with internal discord over the future of its blocksize? What does this person have to do with any of it?
Elsewhere, Wikileaks had a field day on Twitter shooting down the initial reporting, which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that the writer of the still forthcoming London Review of Books piece on Wright was also the author of an excoriating takedown of Julian Assange which ran in its pages in 2014. Wright and Assange previously took shots at each other on the cypherpunks mailing list in the 1990s:
Contacted for comment, the London Reviews of Books confirmed that its piece, in which writer Andrew O'Hagan spent six months trailing Wright, will still be published, and that it was always intended to include the aftermath of Wright’s outing. It is scheduled for publication later this month, when perhaps, finally, the truth about Craig Wright, if not Satoshi Nakamoto, may yet come to light.
As to whether Bitcoin was actually invented by cryonicists so they could spend their digital cash in the future, or if it’s a controlled NSA experiment, we may never know, but there is still much popcorn to be enjoyed in the meantime.
Elmo is a writer with Real Future.