Craig Wright, an Australian computer scientist and businessman, boldly claimed on Monday to be the anonymous inventor behind the world’s most famous cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, promising to put an end to one of the most persistent and bedeviling mysteries on the Internet.
Experts called “bullshit” almost immediately.
Wright’s claim first surfaced in a blog post and was followed by news stories based on interviews he gave to The Economist, the BBC, and GQ magazine. Any time someone claims to know or be the elusive Bitcoin founder, known by the alias Satoshi Nakamoto, it’s news. But Wright also said he had verifiable proof that he was the mystery man. Wright, who is reportedly working with a well-known biographer, made the news organizations promise not to publish their stories until he’d put up his own blog post, which is filled with complex and impressive-looking cryptographic “proofs” that he says bolsters his claim.
“I’m not seeking publicity, but want to set the record straight,” Wright told The Economist of his motive to go public now. Wright had been previously identified by journalists as a possible candidate for Satoshi, but skeptics have said he may also be a scam artist. Wired reported last year that there are holes in Wright’s résumé, and that he may have “misrepresented his academic credentials.”
“People are assuming [the misinformation against me] is true, because I’m not saying anything,” Wright told The Economist. “This impacts not just me and my work, but my family, my staff and everything else.”
To prove that he really is Satoshi, Wright said he’d created what’s known as a digital signature and affixed it to a document, in this case a speech by the novelist Jean-Paul Sartre from 1964, explaining why he was refusing to accept the Nobel Prize. Wright claimed that he made that signature using a cryptographic key that only Satoshi, as he’s called, or someone close to him would possess.
But cryptology and Bitcoin experts say Wright is lying, and that he simply ripped off an existing digital signature from another source and passed it off as a new one.
“We’ve got him dead to rights,” Dan Kaminsky, a prominent computer security researcher who says he has proven Wright’s ruse, told The Daily Beast. “The guy’s a scammer.”
Kaminsky is backed up by other Satoshi sleuths who spent much of Monday morning taking Wright up on his offer to check his work. On his blog, Wright offered step-by-step instructions for proving that his signature was authentic. On the Y Combinator website, one researcher claimed to have debunked Wright, arguing, as Kaminsky does, that the signature is not what Wright says it is.
“I can’t think of a more convoluted way to go about claiming one is Satoshi than what Craig Wright has done so far,” Jerry Brito, the executive director of Coin Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy center focused on cryptocurrency technologies such as Bitcoin, told The Daily Beast. “He’s provided no cryptographic evidence verifiable by the public, and many of his answers sound plain fishy.”
Wright’s demonstration, via his website and in sit-down interviews with journalists, has also struck some observers as needlessly circuitous and dramatic, and perhaps designed to pull a fast one on the press and other members of the public.
“This is how magicians and con men work. They do a huge amount of explanation,” Kaminsky said. In the end, he gave Wright credit for a slick presentation. But, Kaminsky said, Wright was diverting people’s attention from the real trick, which was to lift an earlier signature from Bitcoin “blockchain,” a kind of ledger used to keep track of transactions.
Wright has reportedly performed other in-person demonstrations besides the one on his blog for journalists and an important figure in the Bitcoin world, Gavin Andresen, the chief scientist at the Bitcoin Foundation. After a “careful cryptographic verification of messages signed with keys that only Satoshi should possess,” Andresen was convinced, he wrote in his own blog post Monday. “I believe Craig Steven Wright is the person who invented Bitcoin.”
Still, others who sat down with Wright aren’t buying his story.
Journalists at The Economist wondered why Wright wouldn’t subject his claim to a test he didn’t fully control. “Why does he not let us send him a message to sign, for example?” which he could then sign, the magazine asked.
Establishing the true identity of Satoshi—who no one has ever met in the flesh—probably won’t matter a wit to Bitcoin’s future. Whoever he really is, the founder has been out of the currency’s development process for some time. The world of digital currency and electronic payments has moved on without him.
But the quest to unmask the mysterious founder has obsessed journalists and some Bitcoin devotees. It’s as if knowing the true identity of the genius is essential to appreciating his creation. The controversy is a 21st century version of the Shakespeare authorship question.
The wrong people have been fingered as Satoshi before, and this isn’t the first time Wright has been identified as the founder, either. But in taking credit now, new questions have been raised about his motives.
Last year, Wired and Gizmodo reported, separately, that Wright might be the mystery man. But according to The Economist, six months earlier Wright had approached a Scottish novelist, Andrew O’Hagan, who had written a biography of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and is now working on a long profile of Wright for the London Review of Books. Had Wright been planning since last year to make a splashy public reveal in connection with his own potential biography?
Wired subsequently reported information it said might show Wright to be a “brilliant hoaxer.”
Brito, the Bitcoin expert, said Wright’s history doesn’t bode well for his story now.
“Given his past, he starts with a credibility deficit and what we’ve seen so far isn’t helping.”
Whether Wright has finally came through with the proof or just pulled a stunt will be the subject of more rounds of intense debate. And already, Satoshi sleuths are moving beyond the realm of cryptographic evidence and into utterly subjective territory, including the mind of the man himself.
“The real Satoshi would have chosen a different proof,” one Y Combinator commenter offered.
To which another replied, “How could you know what the real Satoshi would do?”