Mar 6, 2024 - Economy

The Satoshi mystery: Bitcoin's anonymous creator and a $70 billion fortune

A shadowy man wearing bitcoin glasses.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A trial unfolding this week in the U.K. centers on the biggest open question in the cryptocurrency world: who is Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto?

Why it matters: Almost no one believes the man currently in court claiming to be Satoshi really is Bitcoin's anonymous founder. But there are some compelling theories for who Satoshi really is — and who might control the 1.1 million bitcoin in known Satoshi wallets.

  • If Satoshi is alive and in control of his keys, then he has access to holdings worth around $70 billion at today's prices.
  • But they've never moved. The market assumes they are lost coins.

Driving the news: Australian computer scientist Craig Wright claims to be Satoshi, and a court decision is expected within weeks as to whether he has a claim over the Bitcoin blockchain's intellectual property.

  • That ruling won't prove Wright's claim, or give him access to the creator's keys.

The big picture: The question of who Satoshi is — who made this crazy money machine — will remain one of the most persistent quandaries in the technology world.

  • My thought bubble: Bitcoin was not made by a "group of people," as some suspect. It was one person.

So who's who? Let's talk about some of the favorite candidates for bitcoin's creator.

Elon Musk

A former SpaceX intern has been banging this drum in reporters' inboxes for years.

  • Best argument: Musk was CEO at PayPal, which means he gave a lot of thought to money on the internet.
  • On the other hand: He was taking over Tesla in 2008, as Bitcoin was being conceptualized.
  • Believability: Low.

John Nash

The troubled mathematician Russell Crowe portrayed in "A Beautiful Mind" was a gifted cryptographer, who died six years after the first bitcoins were mined.

  • Best argument: Toward the end of his life, Nash was very interested in money.
  • And also: With some head-twisting word puzzling, you can find "John Nash" in Satoshi's full name, according to this Redditor.
  • Believability: Even lower.

Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto

The U.S.-based Japanese engineer was identified by Newsweek as bitcoin's inventor in 2014.

Hal Finney

A computer scientist, video game maker, cryptographer, and — by all accounts — the nicest guy, Finney has gone down in history as the first person to receive a bitcoin transaction.

  • Best argument: He was there from the beginning, with the skills to do it.
  • He was diagnosed with ALS shortly after Bitcoin debuted, dying in 2014, four years after Satoshi said adieu.
  • Believability: High.

Nick Szabo

A cypherpunk who invented an early online payment scheme he called bit gold.

  • Best argument: In his Coinbase book, "Kings of Crypto," Fortune's Jeff John Roberts says it's an open secret among long-time bitcoiners that Szabo is Satoshi.
  • Plus: Experts say their writing styles match nicely. And the initials of each are switched (SN and NS). 🤯
  • Yes, but: Szabo has also denied it.
  • Believability: This is my bet (Occam's razor + vibes), but the evidence is circumstantial.

The latest: The Wright trial prompted Martti Malmi — the real Satoshi's first sidekick (in digital anonymity) — just released new email exchanges with Satoshi from over a decade ago.

  • They offer more intrigue than clues.

The bottom line: To bitcoiners, it doesn't matter who Satoshi is. By abdicating, he fostered decentralization.

Go deeper: The Bitcoin Class of 2024

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