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Vilified Bitcoin Tycoon After Losing $500 Million: My Life Is at Risk

In the first interview with Mt. Gox’s Mark Karpeles since Japanese police launched an investigation into his bankrupt exchange, he says he’s just a regular geek—and that he’s in danger.

09.17.14 9:55 AM ET

TOKYO, Japan — What was once the world’s largest bitcoin exchange, Mt. Gox, filed for bankruptcy protection in February this year after disclosing that a half-billion dollars worth of virtual currency had disappeared into the blue, allegedly hacked.

A Japanese police investigation was launched in late July to try to find where the money went and how the bitcoins were swallowed, or if other crimes had been committed. An independent group of IT specialists living in Tokyo, headed by Jason Maurice of Wiz Technologies, began its own independent probe. Now the race for the truth is picking up speed.

The bitcoin community and press have vilified Mark Karpeles, the CEO of Mt. Gox, as a clown and a con man. The Japanese tabloid magazines have portrayed him as a “beast” hiding in his “dungeon” in Tokyo’s Meguro City.

But who is he really?

A source close to the police investigation says the case is being looked at as one in which “Mt. Gox is the victim of a crime, rather than perpetrator of a crime.”

“We are receiving complete cooperation from them,” says this source. “However, we have also received criminal complaints from customers alleging fraud or embezzlement, and we have to investigate those allegations as well.”

Certainly the bitcoin community continues to treat Karpeles as a pariah. When he began tweeting anew as @MagicalTux, writing about daily life, snacks, and Japanese sunsets, the response was vehemently hostile. There were even death threats: “I am planning to hire someone to murder you. Watch out your back because your life will be fucked up asap!”

It’s not surprising Karpeles feels his life is at risk, and, indeed, he anticipated this. One of the reasons that Karpeles was the only director of Mt. Gox, he says, was because he knew perfectly well the risks of doing the job and he wanted to protect his employees from those potential risks. “I wanted to be as much as possible the only ‘sekininsha,’ or ‘responsible person’ in this job,” he explained before sitting down for an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, his first since the police investigation began.

Following are excerpts from the transcript of our conversation, which was conducted in French and is here translated into English. (A full original transcript is available here.)

Stucky: Everybody in the Tokyo bitcoin community talks about you. Who are you and where do you come from?

Karpeles: I’m a 29-year-old French geek, an entrepreneur, and mostly, I’m curious. In other words, when I see something, I like to know how it works. My main activities are coding and sending emails. I think coding is a bit of an art form. You code the same way a writer writes his book and the painter paints his picture. When you are inspired, you can’t stop doing it. And sometimes, even if you force yourself as much as you can, it just won’t come.

I was born in Dijon, France. When I was 3, I started to do basic programming. I did not get a complete high school. In fact I was not very good at school. I was put in a literature class and that was not necessarily the best environment for me. I used to dismantle a calculator to understand how it works. I’m purely a math and science guy. I have a memory that is very much based on numbers.

I left France for Israel, where I lived nine months. In Israel, the war in Gaza started. Somebody blew up the power plant in a terrorist attack, and we had half a day with the power shut down. For an IT company, that’s the worst thing that can happen. That day, it blew all my plans. What I was trying to create there did not happen, so I returned to France. The French company I worked for bought several companies abroad, including some in Japan, so I did everything in order to be transferred here. I arrived in Japan in 2009 and I founded a company called Tibanne on October 29, 2009. Tibanne does web hosting and development. I did web hosting and different services all by myself.

What is it that especially attracted you to Japan?

Well, I like the standard of living that we have in Japan. I have forgotten my laptop on a park bench numerous times, and each time someone brought it back to me. In the subway train in Japan, when people are not necessarily in a good mood, they will nevertheless be courteous. It inspires you to do the same. Once I was in Shibuya in a parking lot with some of my employees, and we found a fat wallet on the floor, so we went to bring it to the closest koban or police box. In Japan, reciprocity is important. It’s good.

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How did you get into bitcoins? Is it because you have a great understanding of finance and the banking systems?

Basically I am more of a geek. I’m a computer guy, more than a politician or a finance person. It all started in 2010, when a French client asked me, “Could I pay in bitcoin?” I said, “Sure.” And I started to look into it. What interested me in bitcoin was the technological aspects. In other words, the fact of maintaining a global database in a secured way. The fact that each client has a secured private wallet. To have an entirely decentralized system. Also, bitcoin allows you to have a database that is public. Bitcoin requires an extremely rapid communication between all the parties concerned. And the joint database—or the account book of bitcoin—is made in a way that everybody can look into it and at any time. There are a lot of technical problems that are very interesting challenges to meet as an engineer in the network or as a programmer.

What are the five things you like the most and hate the most?

I like computers, courtesy, Japan, apple pies, and cooking, and also driving around in a car, or traveling. I can’t really take an airplane at the moment. I am more secure in Japan, and if I want to travel abroad I have to get a permit from the Japanese court that put Mt. Gox into bankruptcy. And unless there is a strong reason for me to travel, it is very unlikely that they would say yes. Otherwise, I love dismantling old computers or electronic devices and try to make them work. I also love cooking my grandmother’s apple pie, a family recipe from Burgundy.

I hate mushrooms, fish, except tuna and salmon in sushi. Otherwise, I hate press conferences. I had only one experience in giving a press conference. If it is possible, I would like to avoid doing another one ever.

Who is your hero?

Putting all the good things in one person is something difficult. I admire Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist and author of Space Chronicles and Inexplicable Universe. My hero is Iron Man (laughs.) I like the action of inventing and innovating.

What do you think life gave you? And what did people give you?

Until now, I think I was really lucky, because not many people can have the same things. And at the same time, I think I am unlucky when I look at how it all ended. It’s actually quite horrible. And I really hope we are going to find out what really happened. Maybe in the near future we will be able to say that we were part of an economic revolution. Bitcoiners are making history. But among bitcoiners, there are some who are quite extremist, I would say, but that is an important thing in a way. You always have to aim for the moon. Because if you can’t reach the moon, you will never reach the stars. Never hesitate to achieve your dream.

Who are the people you saw the most these last years?

The last five years, and especially when I had Mt. Gox, it was house/work, work/house. Mt. Gox used my entire energy. I didn’t really have the choice. As of 2012, we started to encounter problems with governments, and then I had no time to go out on my own time. I feel somehow better now than then, because I spend less time at work and because I didn’t really know how I could improve the situation anyway. That said, I still have a lot of things to sort out, and most of all, it leaves a bad aftertaste to be pirated and to have so many bitcoins stolen.

Some believe that bitcoin is the future of finance. Some say that governments will always find ways to enforce new laws to criminalize bitcoin, because bitcoin is not a concept that goes along with central banks and the very existence of governments. Tell us about your views.

At the moment, the worst enemies of bitcoin are the people who love bitcoin. Particularly the pirates and all these sorts of people, who spend their entire time trying to attack the services that are trying to make a bitcoin user friendly, like Mt. Gox, for example. As I am speaking to you, I do not think that it is possible to have a bitcoin exchange service unless you have a team that works 24/7 to detect attacks and maintain security. It requires a budget that not many people have access to. I think we will see another Mt. Gox next year, and the next year. And my opinion is that each time we will see that, the losses will increase. In 2012, you had the collapse of Bitcoinica [after a massive hacking incident]. After that you had Mt. Gox. The next collapse could be even worse. However, if bitcoin works, it can be extremely interesting. Those who are enthusiastic about bitcoin should be more careful about making sure they avoid harm.

You said you felt liberated that everything is over with Mt. Gox. Do you still think about it?

Maybe it’s too strong to use that word, but being pirated—having someone entering your server without you knowing it—is close to being violated, like a virtual rape. It might not be the appropriate word, pardon me, but that’s how I feel. I think I spent too much of my time dealing with the governments and the banks. All the precious time I should have spent coding and maintaining the system, I was spending it at meetings with lawyers, bankers, and lobbyists. That is finally a lot of time wasted in dealing with regulations and stuff that oppose what we do, whereas my time could have been more efficiently spent.

Banks are typically the first to be worried about bitcoin, because their international banking system is threatened by it. Despite some problems like high-risk loans, and all the stories we hear with the mafia passing their money through the normal banking system, you see banks that have to pay impressive amounts because of that. But globally, their system works. So they don’t welcome someone like Satoshi Nakamoto, who forces them to re-learn what they are doing. With bitcoin, they suddenly have a banking system that’s not up to date. It represents a huge change and a lot of cost if all the banks in the world have to learn how to do their job from scratch.

After the bankruptcy of Mt. Gox, the Japanese police opened an investigation into this case. Many believe that the Japanese police haven’t got the skills to solve this issue. Some Mt. Gox creditors launched an independent probe on their own. What do you think of this initiative?

I think that the people who launched this initiative slightly underestimate the Japanese police if they think that they are not advancing. I don’t have all the details, but I have more details than most people. So I have seen things that others won’t ever see. And based on that, I think the Japanese police are quite efficient. But I totally support the idea that several people start their own independent investigations. It is generally a good idea to have different people having different ways of looking into the same problem. The police do not report into details on what they are doing. That’s why it might seem like they are not doing anything, but they are actually working on this. It is, however, a recurrent problem and a fact that the Japanese police arrest innocent people and make them confess to crimes that that they didn’t commit. So I simply hope that they won’t do anything crazy. That is something that is not guaranteed, though.

Personally, I support their efforts to find the culprit or the culprits. The method used is less important to me than the result.

Have you read the collected writings of Satoshi Nakamoto, the founder of Bitcoin?

No. I haven’t read “the” book. These days I read more books like, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions, by Randall Munroe. And I try to imagine all possibilities to frame a problem.

What is a question that you wished a reporter would have asked you and that no one ever asked you?

That’s a good question. Well, I wished that someone had asked me how I’m doing. I think everyone sees me as “Mr. Mt. Gox,” and not enough like a human being, or just a person. Although I don’t always agree with what human beings think, or the way they react, it’s sometimes disappointing. Everyone needs human interaction.

— Jake Adelstein contributed to this article.