Satoshi Nakamoto: Is it ok to hunt for the identity of the Bitcoin inventor?

To search or not to search for the identity of the mysterious founder and inventor of Bitcoin, that is the question. Do we the public have a right to satisfy our curiosity about who the person behind the Satoshi Nakamoto pseudonym is? Or are we ethically obliged to respect his or her privacy?

Two opposing views on the topic come from Adrian Chen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, whose beat is internet technology and culture, and Emin Gün Sirer, Cornell prof and self-described hacker.

Chen’s argument is that “in investigating the background of an inventor, we hope to learn something about innovation that can’t be gleaned from the thing itself.” He says it’s wishful thinking to argue as many Bitcoiners do that Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity is irrelevant. Somewhat unconvincingly, Chen also maintains that the mere fact that Satoshi holds an estimated half a billion dollars worth of Bitcoin legitimizes the curiosity about who he is or isn’t.

At core though, Chen’s argument seems to be about not letting technology control us. “Turning away from the question of Nakamoto’s identity is a way to deny the fact that bitcoin, like all technology, is ultimately, imperfectly, human,” his brief essay concludes. “The world could use this reminder now more than ever.”

In contrast, Sirer says the spectacle of journalists hunting for Satoshi’s identity “serves only a prurient interest.” He argues that we have no right to make “someone who wants to remain a private individual into a public persona,” especially when what’s brought attention to them is an invention that ultimately benefits the public.

In the case of Bitcoin, Sirer says, being outed as Satoshi could also be dangerous and lead to “extortion attempts from the Russian mafia[.] Everyone known to hold substantial bitcoin, and even those who do not, get extorted by shady characters.”

But, somewhat contradictorily, in the same blog post, Sirer says he thinks he might have identified Satoshi, that people’s “thought patterns and idiosyncrasies form a unique signature, the same way code structure forms a unique signature for developers.”

“Having read Satoshi’s writings, I have a very good idea of his unique mental signature,” he writes.

“So, for some time now, every time I converse with someone new, I have been doing a quick comparison to Satoshi…

“Interestingly, I have come across one person who was a perfect fit. That person had the precise same intellectual signature as Satoshi, someone who could have written, word for word, some of Satoshi’s forum posts.”

Now Sirer says a lot of things that make sense to me about Bitcoin. And as a writer and investigator, I know that people definitely have a writerly signature. I frequently discover people’s identities due to their unique turns of phrase. I am inclined to believe that he might very well have insights into who the Bitcoin inventor truly is.

But I don’t agree with Sirer that the Bitcoin inventor would automatically be in danger from the Russian mob. There are lots of rich people in the world, who get along just fine. While being outed might be majorly disruptive for Satoshi, I am far from convinced it would be perilous. Not to mention that Sirer seems perfectly secure telling the world he believes he has identified Satoshi.

I also don’t think it’s fair of Sirer to accuse the media of conducting a “pointless Satoshi manhunt” when he’s been doing the exact same thing. He clearly wants to know who Satoshi is so why can’t the rest of us?

It’s not good enough to say responsible media don’t do this. There may be a good reason not to reveal Satoshi’s identity or there may not be. There may also be compelling grounds to tell the public who Satoshi is. Without knowing his or her specific circumstances, it’s impossible to say.

On the question of privacy, lt’s my experience as a journalist that people who want to be left alone generally do get left alone. In the Satoshi case, there’s little doubt that a public identification would lead to a media conflagration, but after a stint in the world’s headlines, I think it would be pretty easy for Satoshi to get back to leading a normal life.

I am, however, still undecided on the question of whether the public has a right to know the identity of the Bitcoin creator, as Chen seems to suggest it does.

Ultimately, I think that depends on Satoshi’s very individual circumstances as opposed to what responsible media should do or how we need to be reminded about the imperfections of technology.