Technology

In pursuit of Satoshi’s ghost

A lot of people hunt Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin designer,  like a rare animal, and try new approaches time and again, to detect him. It’s now the turn of stylometry — but will the study of punctuation and certain expressions help chase the unique and smart species named Satoshi? In fact, this person knows how to encrypt their identity better than anyone in the world. 

Where it all began

Back in the 1990s, the group of people who called themselves cypherpunks was actively discussing mathematics, cryptography, computer science, politics and philosophy via the electronic mailing list. Among them were Eric HughesTimothy C. May, Nick SzaboJohn Gilmore, Judith Milhon, and about 690 other cypherpunks.

Until about the 1970s, cryptography was mainly practised in secret by military or spy agencies. But then data standards got leaked, so in the 1980s cypherpunks started advocating widespread use of strong privacy-enhancing technologies as a route to social and political change.

It doesn’t necessarily mean that Satoshi is one of the cypherpunks, of course, although there are good odds that he is.  

All we know about Satoshi so far is well-preserved on this website.  On April 26, 2011, Bitcoin creator wrote his last email to a developer of the Bitcoin client software at the time, Gavin Andresen,  “I wish you wouldn’t keep talking about me as a mysterious shadowy figure, the press just turns that into a pirate currency angle. Maybe instead make it about the open source project and give more credit to your dev contributors; it helps motivate them.”  

On receiving this email, Gavin Andresen informed Satoshi that he had been invited to speak to an organisation under the CIA.

To that Satoshi never replied. In fact, from there on, multiple theories started circulating around the founder of digital gold, and various personalities popped up as prospective Bitcoin designers.

Candidates

August 2008,  the U.S. Patent Office received an application from Neal King, Vladimir Oksman and Charles Bry. The application had a title, Updating and Distributing Encryption Keys and described a cryptographic mechanism very similar to what was later called Bitcoin.  Although all three inventors later denied their involvement with Satoshi Nakamoto, the very same day they got their patent, somebody registered the domain bitcoin.org. What is noteworthy, the unique and rare phrase from the application was also found later in the paper written by Satoshi himself — “computationally impractical to reverse.”

Other “suspects” include:

  • Hal Finney,  who traded letters with Satoshi.
  • Dorian Nakamoto,  a notorious Japanese American, depicted in this Newsweek article.
  • Craig Wright, a businessman who declared himself Satoshi.
  • Nick Szabo, a cryptographer and the author of a paper on “bit gold.” He said more than once that he wasn’t Satoshi.  

What about stylometry?

With all those candidates and many questions unanswered, the mystery around Satoshi’s figure grows bigger and bigger. It’s no wonder that in the absence of any news, the search for Satoshi results in various attempts to identify him via technological tools. Stylometry is one of them.

It’s the process of studying the linguistic style of typed text and handwriting, generally with the view to identifying its author. That being said, when people write, not only do they use specific idioms and punctuation but also a unique way to place the words in phrases. The development of computers’ capacities for analyzing large quantities of data enhanced this type of effort by orders of magnitude. 

In the context of the stylometric approach, the cryptocurrency-community has seen a few cryptographers who have come close to Nakamoto’s linguistic stylings. The five closest individuals named would be Nick Szabo, Ian Grigg, Hal Finney, Wei Dai, and Timothy May.

In December 2017 the data scientist Michael Chon used each of those people in stylometric analysis against Nakamoto’s writings:           

According to the classification algorithms, [stylometric analysis],  they “all predicted that Nick Szabo is linguistically similar to Satoshi who had written the Bitcoin paper and Ian Grigg is linguistically similar to Satoshi who had exchanged the emails. The word “would” is used by Hal Finney 28 times and the word “one” is used by Nick Szabo 199 times. There is one unigram, the word “contract,” commonly used by Ian Grigg and Nick Szabo.”

The latest stylometric analysis conducted in June by a nonprofit based in England showed that the creator of Bitcoin is Gavin Andresen,  the cryptographer who received the very last email from Satoshi in 2011. Shortly after the announcement, Andresen, however, tweeted, “My opinion of the accuracy of stylometry dropped significantly after reading this.”  As you see, Andresen, too, denied any connection with Satoshi.

Even though some tech-oriented tools had fallen short of expectations, this latest stylometric study was hardly the last attempt to identify Satoshi. But, maybe, the right time has come to try a new approach. Where technologies produce multiple bugs, an eye of an attentive observer can spot significant details.

Although Satoshi sounds like a ghost and wants to be a ghost, he is just a human and humans leave traces.

It’s very likely that the hunter who will ultimately spot the rare species named Satoshi will be the person who puts technology aside and looks for people… or, at least, combines two approaches. The real present question is, would you actually like Satoshi to be caught?

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Iuliia Sukhomlinova

A blockchain enthusiast and a content writer with a zest for technologies. My final goal is to help readers find what they need, understand what they find, and use what they understand appropriately.

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