After Newsweek 'Outs' Purported Bitcoin Founder, Questions Follow

A Newsweek cover story explores the identity of "Satoshi Nakamoto," the purported founder of the digital currency bitcoin. Though it's drawn doubt and controversy, Newsweek is standing by its story.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

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And I'm Melissa Block. The past 36 hours have brought us a splashy cover story claiming to have found the figure behind a shadowy, multibillion-dollar enterprise; also, a media circus replete with an O.J. Simpson-like car chase through the streets of Los Angeles; and an army of online debunkers intent on proving the article false.

The article, by Newsweek's Leah McGrath Goodman, is called "The Face Behind Bitcoin." And NPR's David Folkenflik joins us to talk about what happened since that article came out yesterday. And David, the whole idea here is trying to unmask the founder of this digital currency exchange, bitcoin. What did Newsweek report?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: So the founder has been this guy that went by what everyone assumed is a nom de plume, Satoshi Nakamoto, and Newsweek is now making this, you know, rather startling claim that the guy's name actually is Satoshi Nakamoto. His full name, Dorian Prentiss(ph) Satoshi Nakamoto; 64-year-old guy of Japanese-American descent, living in the foothills near Los Angeles.

This is a guy who trained in college in physics and went on to become a computer engineer. He worked on classified projects for the military. You know, she builds her case on talking with family members and others to really say this guy not only could be the founder behind bitcoin, but also is the most likely person to fit that bill.

BLOCK: It's a very long article, David, in Newsweek. How firm do you think, in the end, the evidence is for the case that the reporter is making?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's a circumstantial case, but it's not a sloppy one. I mean, all of her sources quoted there - aside from an interaction with a police officer, at one point - are on the record, people talking directly to her about this. She represents this as her conclusions rather than an unassailable fact, but she does build it on public records and on-the-record sources.

BLOCK: Mr. Nakamoto has come out since then to deny that he is the founder of bitcoin, and journalists have been trying to pick apart this story. There are others, though, in the digital world who say that it's just wrong to out someone as the force behind bitcoin in the first place. What's that about?

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, there's this thing called - this concept of doxxing, the idea taken from the word documents, that you're giving enough data to provide other people online, or in the public, with information about who somebody who might want to remain in the shadows really is. In this case, a photograph accompanying the article about Mr. Nakamoto included the address of his house.

It doesn't say what street he's on, but it allowed for this incredible spectacle to play out just hours after the Newsweek article was posted yesterday, where he was surrounded by a ring of reporters at his front door, each asking him questions. And he was either genuinely befuddled or putting on this kind of shambling Columbo act, where he just didn't understand much about bitcoin at all; and he said he had no knowledge of this.

BLOCK: And that scrum of reporters led to that car chase that we alluded to.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, crazy, you know, very slow speeds through the streets of Los Angeles and just as you say, a bit evocative of the O.J. Simpson chase - and to equal lack of results, I might add.

BLOCK: Well, David, in the end, where does this leave us?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think if you pull back at a macro level, you know, there are a couple things going on here. First off, I think it's been sport to trash Newsweek, particularly after its implosion under the fabled and heralded Tina Brown. I think there's a tension between people in the world of digital media, and people in what's seen as legacy media companies, infringing on their - at levels of expertise.

I think there's also this real reluctance, there's this strong libertarian streak in the digital realm; people, if you think of institutions associated with Silicon Valley or WikiLeaks or other places, where they really want to hold establishment structures at great arm's length. And I think that incorporates the press, in this instance. At the same time, I think that it's absolutely legitimate for journalists to figure out, you know, who is behind this multibillion-dollar operation that has attracted the interest of so many law enforcement authorities, and in which so many people lost hundreds of millions of dollars - as it turns out, in the aggregate.

You know, I think it's a totally legitimate journalistic endeavor. I also think it's legitimate for people to hold Newsweek accountable for the reporting it does.

BLOCK: OK. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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