Currency

Did A Reporter Just Solve A Bitcoin Mystery?

One bitcoin will get you this nerd merit badge.

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One bitcoin will get you this nerd merit badge.

eagleapex's posterous/Flickr

In 2009, a programmer who called himself "Satoshi Nakamoto" created bitcoin. The virtual currency took off, but Satoshi's identity has remained a mystery.

The journalist Joshua Davis tries to track down Satoshi in an article (subscription req'd) in this week's New Yorker.

Whoever created bitcoin, it's clear that he (or she, or they) is/are a very clever coder with a deep understanding of cryptography.

An expert tells the New Yorker writer that someone with Satoshi's skills would probably be at Crypto2011, the most important cryptography conference. The writer also notes that Satoshi typically uses British (rather than American) spellings.

So he narrows the field to people from the UK at Crypto2011. He finds one compelling candidate: A guy named Michael Clear.

After I read the article this morning, I called Gavin Andresen, a programmer who has done a lot of work on bitcoin, and who we talked to at length when we did a bitcoin story earlier this year.

I asked Gavin if Michael Clear is Satoshi.

"I have no idea," Gavin told me. "It could be."

Clear was named the top computer-science undergrad at Trinity College in Dublin in 2008. He worked for Allied Irish Banks to improve its currency-trading software in 2009. Also that year, he co-wrote a paper on peer-to-peer technology. (Bitcoin is a peer-to-peer system.)

So Davis, the author of the New Yorker story, emails Clear.

"I like to keep a low profile," Clear replies. "I'm curious to know how you found me."

Davis eventually cuts to the chase:

Finally, I asked, "Are you Satoshi?"

He laughed, but didn't respond. There was an awkward silence.

"If you like, I'd be happy to review the design for you," he offered instead. "I could let you know what I think."

"Sure," I said hesitantly. "Do you need me to send you a link to the code?"

"I think I can find it," he said.

In the end, Clear says he's not the guy — but his denial leaves the door open just a crack:

"I'm not Satoshi," Clear said. "But even if I was I wouldn't tell you."

One other interesting detail: Clear says the bitcoin code is good, but there are some weaknesses. Users store their bitcoins in virtual wallets; the system should automatically provide encryption software to secure those virtual wallets, Clear says.

I didn't bring this detail up when I talked to Gavin today. But when I asked him about news from the bitcoin world, he told me that the latest version of the bitcoin software includes wallet encryption.

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