When Newsweek published its cover story last week claiming to have identified the creator of Bitcoin, I tweeted that I was reserving judgment on their claim, pending more evidence. At this point it looks like they don’t have more evidence to show us—and that Newsweek is probably wrong.
Bitcoin’s founder called himself “Satoshi Nakamoto” and is commonly called simply “Satoshi.” Most people believe the founder chose this pseudonym to hide his/her/their identity. Newsweek claims instead that a California engineer named Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto is Satoshi. Dorian’s birth name was Satoshi Nakamoto but he legally changed his name to Dorian in 1973. (For clarity, I’ll call him “Dorian”, and I’ll use “Satoshi” to refer to the Bitcoin founder, so that the question at hand is whether Dorian and Satoshi are the same person.)
Felix Salmon, who has some of the best commentary on the Dorian/Satoshi matter, points out that Newsweek’s claim is almost universally disbelieved in the technical community. Part of the reason is the perception that Newsweek’s evidence is thin, and people in the tech community aren’t inclined to defer to the institutional reputation of Newsweek.
Another reason is that the Newsweek piece is craftily written to give the impression that the evidence is stronger than it is. This starts from the first two words of the piece, which refer to Dorian as “Satoshi Nakamoto”. Only later is it made clear that that is not actually the man’s name, and hasn’t been his name at any point in the relevant period. Newsweek even says that his “name really is Satoshi Nakamoto”—which is not true. Newsweek wants us to believe that Dorian decided to sign the Bitcoin paper with his birth name rather than the name he had been using for 35 years. There’s no explanation as to why he would have used his birth name on the Bitcoin paper.
The followup comments from Newsweek’s team don’t give much confidence either. For example, Salmon quotes Newsweek editor Jim Impoco as saying “we eliminated every other possible person.” That can’t possibly be true, or even close to true. And it’s not the only time Newsweek people have fallen back on an argument that they couldn’t rule out Dorian, which is far short of saying that they have positive evidence that Dorian is Satoshi.
To me, one of the weakest points in Newsweek’s argument is their assertion that Dorian had the skills and background to create Bitcoin. All they really have as evidence is that Dorian trained as a physicist, worked as an engineer, and is reputed to be very intelligent. But none of that indicates that Dorian understood cryptography or distributed algorithms well enough to devise Bitcoin and write the original Bitcoin paper.
The real Satoshi was obviously conversant with crypto—the Bitcoin design shows it, and the fluency of the crypto discussion in the paper tells us that Satoshi was well acquainted with the jargon and literature of the field. Newsweek doesn’t offer any evidence that Dorian knew crypto.
Imagine you’re trying to track down the author of a novel written in fluent Hungarian. Somebody points to a possible author who is a talented writer and speaks several languages. One of the first questions you’ll ask is whether this candidate author knows Hungarian—especially when there are several known Hungarian speakers who are already suspected as possible authors.
Newsweek’s failure to ask such obvious questions—or their decision to plunge ahead despite not getting useful answers—is at the core of technologists’ skepticism about the story. If they didn’t think to ask whether Dorian knew crypto, then they were probably in over their heads technically which throws other aspects of their analysis into doubt. If they did ask, didn’t find answers they liked, and wrote the piece anyway without mentioning the missing evidence, then they are confirming the impression that their decision to publish was driven more by a desire for page-views than by the strength of the story.
It’s not too late for Newsweek, or somebody else, to show up with evidence tying Dorian to Satoshi. But unless that evidence does turn up, I will continue to believe that Dorian Nakamoto is not the creator of Bitcoin.