Last Tuesday, Gizmodo and Wired published the results of separate but parallel investigations into documents that suggested a new candidate for the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin.
In emails and documents shared with both publications (by an individual who identified themselves to Gizmodo reporters as a hacker) Dr Craig Wright, an Australian academic and serial entrepreneur, appears to take credit for Bitcoin's creation in several instances dating back to months before the cryptocurrency was first introduced to the world in 2008.
"I need your help and I need a version of me to make this work that is better than me," Wright appears to write in a 2008 email to Dave Kleiman, an American computer forensics expert who died in 2013. That email is one of several documents in the trove linking both Wright and Kleiman to Bitcoin's creation.
Since our story was published (along with subsequent profiles of both Wright and Kleiman) things have only gotten weirder. Wright's home was raided by police due to an investigation by the Australian Tax Office that's reportedly unrelated to Tuesday's articles. Wright himself has pretty much disappeared. And several outlets have done even more digging to try and figure out whether Wright and Kleiman were, in fact, closely involved in creating Bitcoin.
Some of those pieces have been excellent. Several of them revealed valuable information about Wright in particular that merits close examination. Few, if any, acknowledge that outside of the document dump, Craig Wright has been telling people for over a year that he was involved in creating Bitcoin. None have proved anything conclusive about whether he was telling the truth. Below, briefly, is the collected evidence that he wasn't:
- We now know, thanks to Sarah Jeong at Motherboard, that a set of PGP keys (referenced in the apparent draft of a trust agreement wherein Wright hands off 1.1 million bitcoin to Kleiman) seem to be backdated — created after 2008 and then modified to give the appearance of an earlier origin date.
- In a similar vein, several reporters have uncovered evidence that Wright was drafting something of a digital revisionist history: he appears to have modified blog posts and social media accounts to insert references to Bitcoin where none had previously existed.
- A sharp-eyed reader also noted to Gizmodo that according to registration information, a domain shown in one of Wright's apparent emails to Kleiman was created months after March 2008, the date on the message, which could indicate a forgery. (The URL — "information-defence.com" — appears on a list of domains pending expiration in May 2008, pointing to the likelihood that its registration lapsed and was later renewed, which would explain the discrepancy.)
- Charles Sturt University, where Wright claimed on his LinkedIn account to have obtained a PhD, said in a statement that he received two Master's degrees but not a doctorate. And the existence of two supercomputers that Wright's company, Cloudcroft, claimed to own, is under question.
- Finally, two days after the articles were published, an email appearing to originate from a known Satoshi account was posted to the bitcoin-dev mailing list. "I am not Craig Wright," it read. "We are all Satoshi." But as the Guardian and others have pointed out, the likelihood that that email was forged is not small.
All of the above are great reasons to question and dig further into Wright's apparent link to Satoshi Nakamoto. Other supposed proof against the connection — such as the opaque claim that his "intellectual signature" does not match Satoshi's, by a Cornell professor who claims to know a stronger candidate for the Bitcoin creator's identity — is far less convincing.
If Craig Wright was not in fact involved in the origin of Bitcoin, the likeliest explanation for the documents provided to Gizmodo and Wired is that they were carefully forged with the intent of making it seem like he was. But what the forgery theories tend to leave out is that Wright himself has claimed repeatedly to be one of Bitcoin's inventors. In 2014, roughly 10 months after Dave Kleiman's death and nearly two years before the documents were leaked to Gizmodo, he reached out to Kleiman's brother and business partners to tell them that he and Kleiman were among the creators of the cryptocurrency. A February 2014 comment on a TechCrunch post about Bitcoin indicates that Kleiman's 94-year-old father had also received information about his son's apparent involvement with the invention. Furthermore, Wright's ex-wife Lynn recalled to Gizmodo that he was working on and talking about "digital money" many years ago.
Craig Wright acts in the manner of someone who either believes that he invented Bitcoin or badly wants someone else to believe it, and he's been acting that way for a long time. If he is not Satoshi, what's going on here? Either Wright was conning someone into believing that he was the inventor, and the leak was engineered by his enemies, or he engineered the leak himself in some bizarre attempt at self-promotion.
Scenario 1: The long con and the extortion plot
Was the leaker, as put forth by a cryptocurrency insider who claimed to have been in contact with Wright's friends and family, an anonymous extortionist with a vendetta against Wright? It's absolutely possible — the leaker provided very little information about their identity to Gizmodo and stopped responding to emails days after first reaching out — but that possibility is not an effective argument against the leak's authenticity.
If Wright were being targeted by someone with a cache of fake documents, he had many opportunities to argue his case and failed to take them. Over the course of a month, Gizmodo reporters had two telephone conversations with him, sent him several emails, and showed up multiple times to his home and place of business. He was evasive throughout and made no attempt to correct the line of questioning connecting him to Satoshi Nakamoto. If he were being targeted by someone with a cache of real documents, his behaviour is fully understandable. By its nature, blackmail tends to work best when the information you have is true.
Scenario 2: The self-leak
That leaves us with the idea that Wright faked the documents himself, either because he wanted to con someone into thinking he was Satoshi or because he had deluded himself into believing that he was. Chris McCardle, an attorney who has been battling Wright in court for years, characterised him recently as someone who was living in "his own fantasy world." "I don't know whether Craig Wright started Bitcoin," McCardle added to the Australian, "but I believe Craig Wright believes he started Bitcoin."
If Wright is running a hoax himself, it is an incredibly elaborate one that's taken him years to carry out. It would mean that when he called Kleiman's closest associates, who were likely still mourning his death, he was setting up a revelation to journalists that would not arrive for another 21 months. He would have instructed his ex-wife to tell reporters that he'd had a longstanding interest in digital money, and his associates to withhold simple information that could clear his name of any Satoshi connection.
The closest thing in the document dump to a smoking gun — an apparent email from Wright using [email protected], an account known to belong to the Bitcoin inventor — was sent to Ramona Watts, Wright's wife and business partner; Andrew Sommer, his lawyer; and John Chesher, his accountant. If the email is real, it should be easy to verify its authenticity by checking their inbox archives. If the forger wanted to ensure that his fakes were difficult to disprove, why wouldn't he make the recipient Dave Kleiman, whose email accounts presumably became inaccessible forever when he died in 2013?
It seems clear from the raids on his home and office that Wright is in some sort of real trouble with Australian tax collectors. Falsely placing himself at the center of one of our era's greatest mysteries would be a strange gamble for a man who you'd think would want to keep a low profile.
As both Gizmodo and Wired acknowledged in our original reports, there are many unanswered questions about Craig Wright, and no unassailable proof that he is Satoshi Nakamoto. But none of those questions come close to disqualifying him, either. Each of the scenarios for Wright's apparent Bitcoin involvement is stranger than the last, and none of them adds up completely. And if the evidence uncovered in our investigation were the product of a deception, the scale of the lie was, as Wired put it, "practically as ambitious as bitcoin itself."