This weekend, cryptocurrency watchers were bestowed with the London Review of Books' months-long, 35,000-word investigation into Craig Wright, the Australian man who claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin. Journalist Andrew O’Hagan brings us many curious details about Wright that ultimately raise more questions than they answer. O'Hagan does succeed wildly though in painting an intimate portrait of a hacker with a multitude of social adjustment issues and bad business dealings, which is something of a speciality of the writer who previously profiled Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.
O'Hagan spent six months with Wright, including the period from 2015 to 2016 during which Wright was at the center of a huge, failed effort to convince the world that he invented Bitcoin. Some have been perplexed as to why Wright wanted to be outed as Satoshi, but O'Hagan's reporting reveals that Wright had a huge financial incentive in being perceived as Bitcoin's creator, as did others.
O’Hagan reports that Wright struck a deal with a Canadian peer-to-peer payment company called nTrust. After an old friend of Wright's convinced nTrust CEO Robert MacGregor that Wright was Satoshi, the company acquired Wright's various debt-laden computer companies and IP rights for $15 million and placed them in a new company called nCrypt. Once the world knew Wright was Satoshi, MacGregor's plan was to sell the dozens of bitcoin technology-related patents Wright claimed to be working on for upwards of $1 billion dollars.
That turned out not to be a sound investment.
(MacGregor is no longer listed as an employee on nTrust's website. I've reached out to the company for comment about his role there currently and the deal with Wright. I was unable to reach out to MacGregor directly. I'll update this post if I receive a response.)
We now know that Wright was ultimately unable to publicly prove that he was Satoshi. The cryptographic “proofs” he offered privately to individuals in the Bitcoin space were eviscerated by the crypto community. And Wright failed spectacularly at providing public proof in the form of moving bitcoin thought to be associated with Satoshi.
Wright tells O’Hagan that he refrained from offering that public proof because of his fear of being liable for the illegal activities of bitcoin users on dark web markets like Silk Road. O'Hagan writes that Wright sent him an article headlined "UK Law Enforcement Sources Hint at Impending Craig Wright Arrest," which said that bitcoin's creator could be in trouble "under the Terrorism Act" for the actions of people who used bitcoin to buy weapons. "I walk from 1 billion or I go to jail," Wright wrote to O'Hagan. "I am the source of terrorist funds as bitcoin creator or I am a fraud to the world. At least a fraud is able to see his family."
The article Wright sent to O'Hagan, interestingly, has since been retracted because it was written based on a faked article. It is far from clear that the inventor of Bitcoin could be held responsible for what people spent it on.
A more substantial specter for Craig Wright is the Australian Tax Office, which is interested in taxes he may owe for cashing out bitcoin and the fact that his businesses claimed $54 million AUD in research and development tax credits—the most ever claimed in Australian history by a tech company. The LRB piece opens with Wright literally on the run down the stairwell of a Sydney high-rise as Australian police raid his offices, so panicked that he left without the passport he'd need to flee the country. (It's unclear whether O'Hagan was there when this happened, or reconstructed the scene based on Wright's recollections.)
Throughout their many months together Wright is either unwilling or unable to provide O’Hagan with definitive proof that he is Satoshi. He didn't move the Satoshi coins. He cannot provide the emails between himself and early Bitcoin developers that would prove his early work on Bitcoin. Instead, he has excuses, like that communication happened mostly over the phone or via direct message of which there is no record, or that certain hard drives were wiped.
O’Hagan pushes on for answers only getting more obfuscations from Wright. Among the most curious gaps in the story are the question of why Wright wanted to create Bitcoin in the first place, why he wanted to be anonymous and why he allegedly decided as Satoshi to abruptly walk away from the project in 2011, never to be heard from again.
Wright's story is filled with contradictions. Wright tells O'Hagan that he was inspired 'to create Bitcoin' by crypto-anarchists but then provides old emails in which he claimed politics never played a part in his development of Bitcoin. Sometimes Wright claims to hate attention but then says that the ego blow of not being able to publish papers that garnered the same attention as Satoshi's is allegedly the reason he walked away from the project. He tells O'Hagan the "money started rolling in" when he first began testing Bitcoin in January 2009, but then later says "for a long time, bitcoin wasn't worth anything" and that he "constantly needed money to keep the whole operation going.”
There are many more internal inconsistencies to Wright's telling of his life as Satoshi, and many confusing twists and turns as to Wright's business dealings, but I will leave that to the Bitcoin devotees who wish to read the lengthy piece.
Overall, the piece adds credence to the accusation that Wright perpetuated a vast and complex fraud to convince the world that he is Satoshi Nakamoto in order to get out from under millions of dollars worth of debts he had accumulated in Australia with the tax office and other creditors. And if it is a scam, it now appears to have included a large number of co-conspirators and/or victims, including the media outlets who were used to facilitate Wright’s outing.
Wright has not responded to the story publicly, having gone silent for a while. He has been busy lately, though, filing patent applications.
While Wright may not have created Bitcoin, he has orchestrated a drama worthy of a John le Carre novel.
"The Satoshi Affair" [London Review of Books]
Elmo is a writer with Real Future.