Searching for Satoshi

20140306Bitcoin

So it seems as if the famously pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto has finally been discovered – and his name really is Satoshi Nakamoto. At least that’s what Newsweek is claiming. But Newsweek isn’t the first publication to go searching for Satoshi – back in 2011, the New Yorker published a piece claiming that Satoshi was actually Irish computer science PhD candidate Michael Clear. Here’s my interview with Clear, published a few days after the New Yorker story broke.

From The Irish Times, October 8th, 2011

When we hear politicians and business leaders talking about the need to create a knowledge economy, they probably don’t mean our brightest and best should go out and literally create a new economy using their knowledge.

But that is exactly what the New Yorker magazine accused one of the country’s brightest and best students of doing this week in a lengthy article on the virtual currency Bitcoin. 

High-profile US technology writer Joshua Davis went sleuthing for “Satoshi Nakamoto”, the pseudonymous figure who revolutionised virtual currency and electronic finance when he announced Bitcoin in 2009. Davis combed through the world’s best programmers and cryptographers and eliminated them until he had what he thought was a plausible suspect, unveiling his likely Satoshi in the New Yorker as . . . 23-year-old Trinity College computer science postgrad Michael Clear.

Clear, understandably, was mightily surprised – when Davis contacted him at a cryptography conference in California in August, Clear thought he made it plain that he wasn’t Satoshi. “I thought I might feature in one paragraph as a possible candidate who was quickly eliminated,” he explains over a coffee, equal parts bemused and amused by the whole thing – he had no idea that Davis would paint him as a prime suspect. He has spent the week since the article was published denying he is Satoshi, writing on his website that “Although I am flattered that Josh had reason to think I could be Satoshi, I am certainly the wrong person…It seems that even limited searches yield candidates who fit the profile far better than I think I do.”

Clear pointed Davis towards a Finnish virtual currency researcher as a more likely Satoshi, more as a light-hearted illustration that even a cursory search could yield a huge number of credible Satoshi candidates who might be considered a closer fit.

“I think he didn’t get my sense of humour there, maybe it was a little dry and Irish for him,” Clear says. Above all, though, Clear points out that “I’m not even very interested in economics.”

And economics is clearly central to Bitcoin – it is controlled by peer-to-peer software, with a finite number of bitcoins to be created over the next few years, earned or “mined” by people using the software to crunch numbers and help with the decentralised accountability such a system requires, so they can’t be duplicated or stolen. Bitcoins can be bought and sold in online exchanges, or even be used to buy things – some real-world cafes and motels accept the things. By all accounts, it’s a masterpiece of programming. As Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman described it: “Bitcoin has created its own private gold standard world, in which the money supply is fixed rather than subject to increase via the printing press.”

As interest in Bitcoin increased and its value rose – at its peak it was worth nearly $33 before tumbling back down to about $5 – the mystique about its creator became a core part of its appeal. But there was no evidence that Satoshi ever existed – he was the Keyser Söze of digital currency creation. So when Davis revealed that he finally had a suspect, it created a huge flurry of interest in the online tech and economics press, with many of the subsequent articles and blog posts removing the ambiguity of Davis’s piece altogether, despite all of Clear’s denials.

In true New Yorker style, Davis’s article is a very compelling narrative, reminiscent of those pieces where some Catcher in the Rye fan would go hunting for JD Salinger – Clear himself says he enjoyed it, despite what he felt were some misrepresentations. But plenty of Bitcoin observers have also cast doubt on Davis’s detective work, questioning the rigour of his search among other things – he relied on Satoshi’s excellent use of the Queen’s English to limit his search to British and Irish researchers, and settled on Clear because Davis expected to find Satoshi at that Californian conference.

There is no doubting Clear’s capabilities, that’s for sure – he was elected a Trinity scholar in 2008 (not top undergraduate, as the New Yorker said); graduated with a gold medal in 2010; and won the computer science category of the Undergraduate Awards, for which he’ll be getting another gold medal from President McAleese at the end of the month. “I like talking about projects that I was actually involved in, or things that I have designed and developed,” he says, happily discussing his security software start-up and his PhD research on something called “fully homomorphic encryption”, but he has no interest in taking credit for other people’s work.

Despite the hassle of having to fend off allegations of being the man who invented Bitcoin, Clear does now have a reputation as a world-class programmer and cryptographer, which might be a consolation when the dust settles. And it also says a lot about the high standards being set by Trinity’s computer science department that one of their own could be so easily mistaken as the mastermind behind a vastly ambitious virtual currency. Maybe that long-promised knowledge economy isn’t so far-fetched after all.

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