Here’s why ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ cut ties with Bitcoin


A man widely believed to be Bitcoin currency founder Satoshi Nakamoto is surrounded by reporters as he leaves his home in Temple City, Calif., March 6, 2014. (David McNew/Reuters)

Why would Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto want to distance himself from Bitcoin?

Nakamoto's possible involvement with Bitcoin has become a juicy thread for media elites after it was reported by Newsweek. Nakamoto quickly denied his connection with the currency, which has only increased the media's interest. Journalists love a good mystery. A car chase makes it all the better. And Bitcoin is a newsy topic, which means more clicks.

But journalists are not normal. In face-to-face conversations, normal people keep asking me one thing: Why all the denials? Why does Nakamoto refuse to be identified with Bitcoin?

Media stakeouts can be tough. So it's reasonable that Newsweek's Nakamoto would rather not associate himself with Bitcoin and avoid unwanted attention.

But that doesn't answer why the creator of Bitcoin — whoever it is — would go so far to hide his or her identity in the first place. The creator, who is known online as Satoshi Nakamoto, chose engineer Gavin Andresen to continue developing Bitcoin's code years ago. That person then vanished from the project altogether sometime in early 2011. The online account has rarely, if ever, come out of hiding since, except to say on Thursday night that "I am not Dorian Nakamoto." The denial has set off guesses and counter-guesses as to whether the cyber-Nakamoto is telling the truth, or if it's just one more bit of subterfuge.

Whatever the answer, there are good reasons — both current and historical — for the Nakamoto identified by Newsweek to want to stay out of the limelight. One is that Bitcoin's virtually untraceable nature makes it easy to use for nefarious purposes, like buying black-market drugs or weapons. It's a lot like cash in that respect, but being a technological innovation, Bitcoin has drawn the ire of some very powerful people, including lawmakers like Sen. Joe Manchin and the governments of China and Russia. If I were in Nakamoto's shoes — and no, I'm not him, either — I would be pretty leery of making those kinds of enemies.

Another is that Bitcoin has arguably benefited from being a leaderless phenomenon. Since all bitcoins are based on computer code, a simple change to that underlying system would dramatically alter how the currency works. If he'd stayed on, Nakamoto could have been the Bitcoin dictator, with the power to change the value of people's holdings overnight. Instead, he chose to delegate — a move that increased confidence in the neutrality of the system as more people got on board. Now anyone who chose to singlehandedly alter the code would face a major backlash from the countless Bitcoin users around the world.

Then there's the question about Bitcoin's long-term viability. Despite the fact that in the United States entrepreneurs are working to integrate it more closely with the financial system, the currency still has a lot of skeptics. If Bitcoin doesn't pan out, it would certainly be much better for someone to continue life not as the person who failed at creating a strong currency.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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