On Saturday the New York Times reported that a new academic paper had evidence linking the two most famous figures in the short history of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin: its pseudonymous inventor Satoshi Nakamoto and the mastermind behind the Silk Road marketplace Dread Pirate Roberts recently seized by the FBI.
But by Monday, the paper’s main claims were looking suspect thanks to Bitcoin’s public log of all transactions made with the currency and some Internet sleuthing by fans of the currency.
It’s a reminder that Bitcoin’s open and distributed design allows public scrutiny of its economy – but that understanding the currency’s complex workings can be challenging even for leading scholars. The authors of the paper (pdf), posted online without peer review, were legendary cryptographer Adi Shamir, joint creator of the RSA algorithm, and his Weizmann Institute of Science colleague Dorit Ron.
The pair use the public log of bitcoin transactions known as the blockchain to examine the activity of a bitcoin address identified by the FBI as belonging to Ross Ulbricht, allegedly Dread Pirate Roberts, mastermind of the Silk Road market where bitcoins were traded for illegal drugs.
Shamir and Ron allege a link to Satoshi based on tracing accounts connected to a transfer of 1000 bitcoins in March this year to the Dread Pirate Roberts account, an amount at the time worth over $60,000. That led them to an unusually old account that received its first bitcoins just one week after the first ever bitcoins were mined on January 9th 2009. The age of that account was apparently enough for Shamir and Ron to write:
“The short path we found suggests (but does not prove) the existence of a surprising link between the two mysterious figures of the Bitcoin community, Satoshi Nakamoto and DPR.”
A post on Reddit yesterday points to evidence that undermines the claim that the crucial address belonged to Nakamoto. It identifies a Bitcoin address matching the description and transactions described in the paper that is clearly linked to an early adopter of the cryptocurrency called Dustin Trammell. A PGP encryption key registered to that address is listed as Trammell’s on a public PGP key server.
Trammel has been accused of being Satoshi before but the accusations haven’t stuck, he’s seen as just someone that got involved with Bitcoin very early. Just last month Trammel posted on the Bitcoin forums to say:
“I am not Satoshi. I did however work with him via email on the first few versions of the client, testing and reporting bugs and suggesting additional features.”
Shamir and Ron’s claim to have found a link between Trammel’s account and that of Dread Pirate Roberts also seems questionable. They link the very old account to Dread Pirate Roberts via five other accounts, the ownership of which is unclear.
Although the transfer of 1000 bitcoins to Dread Pirate Roberts was made in March 2013, the very old account hasn’t sent out as much as a single bitcoin since July 2011. It’s possible that the intermediary accounts actually represent companies that offer Bitcoin exchange services. Addresses controlled by such companies end up connected to all the people that they do business with.
All this is not to say that it is impossible for the Bitcoin transaction graph to reveal who is doing business with whom - other research has shown it can (see “Mapping the Bitcoin Economy Could Reveal Users’ Identities”). But for now at least, Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity and activity appear to be as unknown as ever.