There’s long been a mystery surrounding the creation of Bitcoin, the anonymous, digital currency that emerged online in early 2009. The person who wrote the original code used the name Satoshi Nakamoto. He created a way to send a new kind of cash online without any intermediary, such as a bank.
But who is Satoshi Nakamoto? He communicated with other digital currency enthusiasts only by email – never in person or by phone. And then, in 2011, he stopped communicating altogether.
Reporters have tried to figure out who Nakamoto is. A cover article last year in Newsweek, for example, said the creator of Bitcoin was an engineer living in the Los Angeles area. But New York Times reporter Nathaniel Popper, author of the new book Digital Gold: Bitcoin And The Inside Story Of The Misfits And Millionaires Trying To Reinvent Money, says that’s probably wrong.
Instead, Popper told KPLU the most likely candidate is a man named Nick Szabo, who grew up in Washington state and now lives in California. Nicholas Julius Szabo went to the University of Washington and graduated with a computer science degree in 1989, according to the university registrar.
“This is a guy whose dad was Hungarian, had fought the Communists in Hungary before coming over here and instilled in the young Nick this vision of the problems with state authorities, government authorities,” Popper said.
Popper said Szabo was involved in many of the early experiments in digital money that predated Bitcoin. He was part of an online community called Cypherpunks, who were exploring cryptography because they were concerned about all the ways the Internet allowed authorities to snoop on ordinary people’s lives.
One of those precursors to Bitcoin was something Szabo created in the late 90s called bit gold, but Popper writes that it was never put into wide use.
“There are still real questions about whether Nick is Satoshi. He himself says he’s not Satoshi,” Popper said. “But there’s no question that Nick was involved in a lot of the important experiments that in the end made Bitcoin possible.”
Szabo blogs and Tweets, but otherwise keeps an extremely low profile. Popper said Szabo last year joined a Palo Alto, California-based Bitcoin-related startup called Vaurum that later changed its name to Mirror. He helped the company shift its focus toward enabling the creation of digital financial contracts.
“His role remained a secret and he ended up leaving the company in 2014 when he was worried about maintaining his own privacy,” Popper said.
A Disruptive Technology
But the currency Nakamoto gave birth to has gained steam. Wealthy investors and venture capitalists see lots of potential for disrupting the banking industry by cutting out the middleman. Libertarians like it because it’s a currency not overseen by government-controlled central banks. Millions of dollars have flowed into Bitcoin-related startup companies.
Still, Bitcoin has to overcome its unsavory reputation before it becomes mainstream. The anonymous online marketplace Silk Road allowed people to buy and sell illegal drugs using Bitcoins. Its creator, Ross Ulbricht, was recently sentenced to life in prison.
And yet, Popper says many people are excited by the idea of a brand new currency.
“Money is this sort of essential substance. It’s sort of like the blood of the market economy,” Popper said. “So the idea of a new kind of money I think was the first thing that really made people’s eyes open. Then, what you had with Bitcoin was a money that promised that you could own it yourself, you could hold it, you could move it and you didn’t need to rely on anybody else. It was yours.”