The Satoshi Affair

Andrew O’Hagan on the many lives of Satoshi Nakamoto

Andrew O'Hagan watches Craig Wright show Gavin Andresen that he holds the Satoshi key.

The Raid

Ten men raided a house in Gordon, a north shore suburb of Sydney, at 1.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2015. Some of the federal agents wore shirts that said ‘Computer Forensics’; one carried a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife, Ramona, at 43 St Johns Avenue. The warrant was issued at the behest of the Australian Taxation Office. Wright, a computer scientist and businessman, headed a group of companies associated with cryptocurrency and online security. As one set of agents scoured his kitchen cupboards and emptied out his garage, another entered his main company headquarters at 32 Delhi Road in North Ryde. They were looking for ‘originals or copies’ of material held on hard drives and computers; they wanted bank statements, mobile phone records, research papers and photographs. The warrant listed dozens of companies whose papers were to be scrutinised, and 32 individuals, some with alternative names, or alternative spellings. The name ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ appeared sixth from the bottom of the list.

Craig Wright in the Oxford Circus office.
Craig Wright in the Oxford Circus office.

Some of the neighbours say the Wrights were a little distant. She was friendly but he was weird – to one neighbour he was ‘Cold-Shoulder Craig’ – and their landlord wondered why they needed so much extra power: Wright had what appeared to be a whole room full of generators at the back of the property. This fed a rack of computers that he called his ‘toys’, but the real computer, on which he’d spent a lot of money, was nearly nine thousand miles away in Panama. He had already taken the computers away the day before the raid. A reporter had turned up at the house and Wright, alarmed, had phoned Stefan, the man advising them on what he and Ramona were calling ‘the deal’. Stefan immediately moved Wright and his wife into a luxury apartment at the Meriton World Tower in Sydney. They’d soon be moving to England anyway, and all parties agreed it was best to hide out for now.

At 32 Delhi Road, the palm trees were throwing summer shade onto the concrete walkways – ‘Tailor Made Office Solutions’, it said on a nearby billboard – and people were drinking coffee in Deli 32 on the ground floor. Wright’s office on level five was painted red, and looked down on the Macquarie Park Cemetery, known as a place of calm for the living as much as the dead. No one was sure what to do when the police entered. The staff were gathered in the middle of the room and told by the officers not to go near their computers or use their phones. ‘I tried to intervene,’ one senior staff member, a Dane called Allan Pedersen, remarked later, ‘and said we would have to call our lawyers.’

Ramona wasn’t keen to tell her family what was happening. The reporters were sniffing at a strange story – a story too complicated for her to explain – so she just told everyone that damp in the Gordon house had forced them to move out. The place they moved into, a tall apartment building, was right in the city and Wright felt as if he was on holiday. On 9 December, after their first night in the new apartment, Wright woke up to the news that two articles, one on the technology site Gizmodo, the other in the tech magazine Wired, had come out overnight fingering him as the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who in 2008 published a white paper describing a ‘peer-to-peer electronic cash system’ – a technology Satoshi went on to develop as bitcoin. Reading the articles on his laptop, Wright knew his old life was over.

By this point, cameras and reporters were outside his former home and his office. They had long heard rumours, but the Gizmodo and Wired stories had sent the Australian media into a frenzy. It wasn’t clear why the police and the articles had appeared on the same day. At about five that same afternoon, a receptionist called from the lobby of Wright’s apartment building to say that the police had arrived. Ramona turned to Wright and told him to get the hell out. He looked at a desk in front of the window: there were two large laptop computers on it – they weighed a few kilos each, with 64 gigabytes of RAM – and he grabbed the one that wasn’t yet fully encrypted. He also took Ramona’s phone, which wasn’t encrypted either, and headed for the door. They were on the 63rd floor. It occurred to him that the police might be coming up in the elevator, so he went down to the 61st floor, where there were office suites and a swimming pool. He stood frozen for a minute before he realised he’d rushed out without his passport.

Ramona left the apartment shortly after Wright. She went straight down to the basement car park and was relieved to find the police weren’t guarding the exits. She jumped into her car, a hire vehicle, and, in her panic, crashed into the exit barrier. But she didn’t stop, and was soon on the motorway heading to north Sydney. She just wanted to be somewhere familiar where she would have time to think. She felt vulnerable without her phone, and decided to drive to a friend’s and borrow his. She went to his workplace and took his phone, telling him she couldn’t explain because she didn’t want to get him involved.

Meanwhile, Wright was still standing beside the swimming pool in his suit, with a laptop in his arms. He heard people coming up the stairs, sped down the corridor and ducked into the gents. A bunch of teenagers were standing around but seemed not to notice him. He went to the furthest cubicle and deliberately kept the door unlocked. (He figured the police would just look for an engaged sign.) He was standing on top of the toilet when he heard the officers come in. They asked the youngsters what they were doing, but they said ‘nothing’ and the police left. Wright stayed in the cubicle for a few minutes, then went out and used his apartment keycard to hide in the service stairwell. Eventually, a call came from Ramona on her friend’s phone. She was slightly horrified to discover he was still in the building and told him again to get out. He, too, had a rental car, and had the key in his pocket. He went down sixty flights of stairs to the car park in the basement, unlocked his car and opened the boot, where he lifted out the spare wheel and put his laptop in the wheel cavity. He drove towards the Harbour Bridge and got lost in the traffic.

Craig Wright in 2016.
Craig Wright in 2016.

As Ramona drove along she began texting the mysterious Stefan, who was at Sydney Airport, having already checked in for a flight to Manila, where he lived. Stefan had to make a fuss to get his bag removed from the plane and then he spoke to Ramona, telling her that Wright would have to get out of the country. She didn’t argue. She called the Flight Centre and asked what flights were leaving. ‘To where?’ asked the saleswoman.

‘Anywhere,’ Ramona said. Within ten minutes she had booked her husband on a flight to Auckland.

In the early evening, Wright, scared and lost, made his way to Chatswood. He texted Ramona to come and meet him, and she immediately texted back saying he should go straight to the airport. She’d booked him a flight. ‘But I don’t have my passport,’ he said. Ramona was afraid she’d be arrested if she returned to their apartment, but her friend said he’d go into the building and get the passport. They waited until the police left the building, then he went upstairs. A few minutes later he came back with the passport, along with the other computer and a power supply.

They met Wright in the airport car park. Ramona had never seen him so worried. ‘I was shocked,’ he later said. ‘I hadn’t expected to be outed like that in the media, and then to be chased down by the police. Normally, I’d be prepared. I’d have a bag packed.’ As Ramona gave him the one-way ticket to Auckland, she was anxious about when she would see him again. Wright said New Zealand was a bit too close and wondered what to do about money. Ramona went to an ATM and gave him $600. He bought a yellow bag from the airport shop in which to store his computers. He had no clothes. ‘It was awful saying goodbye to him,’ Ramona said.

In the queue for security, he felt nervous about his computers. His flight was about to close when the security staff flagged him down. He was being taken to an interview room when an Indian man behind him started going berserk. It was just after the Paris bombings; the man’s wife was wearing a sari and the security staff wanted to pat her down. The man objected. All the security staff ran over to deal with the situation and told Wright to go. He couldn’t believe his luck. He put his head down and scurried through the lounge.

Back at Wright’s office, Allan Pedersen was being interviewed by the police. He overheard one of them ask: ‘Have we got Wright yet?’

‘He’s just hopped a flight to New Zealand,’ his colleague said.

Wright was soon 30,000 feet above the Tasman Sea watching the programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) being chased by unknowable agents in The Matrix. Wright found the storyline strangely comforting; it was good to know he wasn’t alone.

At Auckland Airport, Wright kept his phone on flight mode, but turned it on to use the airport’s wifi to Skype with Stefan, using a new account. They had a discussion about how to get him to Manila. There was a big rock concert that night in Auckland, and all the hotels were full, but he crossed town in a cab and managed to get a small room at the Hilton. He booked two nights, using cash. He knew how to get more cash out of ATMs than the daily limit, so he worked several machines near the hotel, withdrawing $5000. He ordered room service that night and the next morning went to the Billabong store in Queen Street to buy some clothes. He felt agitated, out of his element: normally he would wear a suit and tie – he enjoys the notion that he is too well dressed to be a geek – but he bought a T-shirt, a pair of jeans and some socks. On the way back to the hotel he got a bunch of SIM cards, so that his calls wouldn’t be monitored. Back at the Hilton he was packing up his computers when the dependable Stefan came on Skype. He told Wright to go to the airport and pick up a ticket he’d left him for a flight to Manila. His picture was all over the papers, along with the story that he was trying to escape.

Within hours of Wright’s name appearing in the press, anonymous messages threatened to reveal his ‘actual history’. Some said he had been on Ashley Madison, the website that sets up extramarital affairs, others that he’d been seen on Grindr, the gay hook-up app. During a six-hour layover in Hong Kong, he killed his email accounts and tried to wipe his social media profile, which he knew would be heavy with information he wasn’t keen to publicise: ‘Mainly rants,’ he said later. When he got to Manila airport, Stefan picked him up. They went to Stefan’s apartment and the maid washed Wright’s clothes while he set up his laptops on the dining-room table. They spent the rest of Saturday wiping his remaining social media profile. Stefan didn’t want any contact to be possible: he wanted to cut Wright off from the world. The next day he put him on a plane to London.

Mayfair

Technology is constantly changing the lives of people who don’t really understand it – we drive our cars, and care nothing for internal combustion – but now and then a story will break from that frontier. I was one of the people who had never heard of Satoshi Nakamoto or the blockchain – the invention underlying bitcoin, which verifies transactions without the need for any central authority – or that it is the biggest thing in computer science.[1] It was news to me that the banks were grabbing onto the blockchain as the foundation of a future ‘internet of value’. The story of a mythical computer scientist was an odd one to come my way. I’m not much detained by thoughts of new computer paradigms. (I’m still getting the hang of the first one.) But to those who are much more invested in the world of tomorrow, the Satoshi story has the lineaments of a modern morality tale quite independent of stock realities. There are things, there are always things, that others assume are at the centre of the universe but don’t make a scratch on your own sense of the everyday world. This story was like that for me, enclosing me in an enigma I couldn’t have named. A documentary is a fashioned thing, of course, as fashioned as fiction in its own ways, but I had to overcome my own bafflement – as will you – to enter this world.

A few weeks before the raid on Craig Wright’s house, when his name still hadn’t ever been publicly associated with Satoshi Nakamoto, I got an email from a Los Angeles lawyer called Jimmy Nguyen, from the firm Davis Wright Tremaine (self-described as ‘a one-stop shop for companies in entertainment, technology, advertising, sports and other industries’). Nguyen told me that they were looking to contract me to write the life of Satoshi Nakamoto. ‘My client has acquired life story rights … from the true person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto – the creator of the bitcoin protocol,’ the lawyer wrote. ‘The story will be [of] great interest to the public and we expect the book project will generate significant publicity and media coverage once Satoshi’s true identity is revealed.’

Journalists, it turned out, had spent years looking for Nakamoto. His identity was one of the great mysteries of the internet, and a holy grail of investigative reporting, with writers who couldn’t dig up evidence simply growing their own. For the New Yorker’s Joshua Davis the need to find him seemed almost painful. ‘Nakamoto himself was a cipher,’ he wrote in October 2011:

Before the debut of bitcoin, there was no record of any coder with that name. He used an email address and a website that were untraceable. In 2009 and 2010, he wrote hundreds of posts in flawless English, and though he invited other software developers to help him improve the code, and corresponded with them, he never revealed a personal detail. Then, in April 2011, he sent a note to a developer saying that he had ‘moved on to other things’. He has not been heard from since.

Davis went on to examine Satoshi’s writing quite closely and concluded that he used British spelling and was fond of the word ‘bloody’. He then named a 23-year-old Trinity College Dublin graduate student, Michael Clear, who quickly denied it. The story went nowhere and Clear went back to his studies. Then Leah McGrath Goodman wrote a piece for Newsweek claiming Satoshi was a maths genius called Dorian Nakamoto, who lived in the Californian suburb of Temple City and didn’t actually know, it turned out, how to pronounce bitcoin. When Goodman’s article ran on the magazine’s cover reporters from all over the world arrived on Dorian’s doorstep. He said he would give an interview to the first person who would take him to lunch. It turned out that his hobby wasn’t alternative currencies but model trains. Someone calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto, and using Satoshi’s original email address, visited one of the forums Satoshi used to haunt and posted the message: ‘I am not Dorian Nakamoto.’[2] Other commentators, including Nathaniel Popper of the New York Times, named Nick Szabo, a cool cryptocurrency nut and the inventor of Bit Gold, but he denied it profusely. Forbes believed it was Hal Finney, who, the blockchain irrefutably showed, was the first person in the world to be sent bitcoin by Satoshi. Finney, a native Californian, was an expert cryptographer whose involvement in the development of bitcoin was vital. He was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2009 and died in 2014. It came to seem that the holy grail would remain out of reach. ‘Many in the bitcoin community … in deference to the bitcoin creator’s clear desire for privacy … didn’t want to see the wizard unmasked,’ Popper wrote in the New York Times. ‘But even among those who said this, few could resist debating the clues the founder left behind.’

The ‘Stefan’ who was hovering during the raid on Craig Wright’s house and office is Stefan Matthews, an IT expert whom Wright had known for ten years, since they both worked for the online gambling site Centrebet. In those days, around 2007, Wright was often hired as a security analyst by such firms, deploying his skills as a computer scientist (and his experience as a hacker) to make life difficult for fraudsters. Wright was an eccentric guy, Stefan Matthews remembered, but known to be a reliable freelancer. Matthews said that Wright had given him a document to look at in 2008 written by someone called Satoshi Nakamoto, but Matthews had been busy at the time and didn’t read it for a while. He said that Wright was always trying to get him interested in this new venture called bitcoin. He tried to sell him 50,000 coin for next to nothing, but Matthews wasn’t interested, he told me, because Wright was weird and the whole thing seemed a bit cranky. A few years later, however, Matthews realised that the document he had been shown was, in fact, an original draft of the by now famous white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. (Like the governments they despise, bitcoiners deal – when it comes to ideas – in ‘white papers’, as if they were issuing laws.) Last year, when Wright was in financial trouble, he approached Matthews several times. By that time, Matthews had become friendly with Robert MacGregor, the founder and CEO of a Canada-based money-transfer firm called nTrust. Matthews encouraged MacGregor to come to Australia and assess Wright’s value as an investment opportunity. Wright had founded a number of businesses that were in trouble and he was deeply embedded in a dispute with the ATO. Nevertheless, Matthews told MacGregor, Wright was almost certainly the man behind bitcoin.

Matthews argued that since Satoshi’s disappearance in 2011, Wright had been working on new applications of the blockchain technology he had invented as Satoshi. He was, in other words, using the technology underlying bitcoin to create new versions of the formula that could, at a stroke, replace the systems of bookkeeping and registration and centralised authority that banks and governments depend on. Wright and his people were preparing dozens of patents, and each invention, in a specific way, looked to rework financial, social, legal or medical services, expanding on the basic idea of the ‘distributed public ledger’ that constitutes the blockchain. This is utopian thinking, even by normal geek standards, but it’s a hot topic in computer science and banking at the moment, and hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in such ideas. Thus: Matthews’s proposal.

After initial scepticism, and in spite of a slight aversion to Wright’s manner, MacGregor was persuaded, and struck a deal with Wright, signed on 29 June 2015. MacGregor says he felt sure that Wright was bitcoin’s legendary missing father, and he told me it was his idea, later in the drafting of the deal, to insist that Satoshi’s ‘life rights’ be included as part of the agreement. Wright’s companies were so deep in debt that the deal appeared to him like a rescue plan, so he agreed to everything, without, it seems, really examining what he would have to do. Within a few months, according to evidence later given to me by Matthews and MacGregor, the deal would cost MacGregor’s company $15 million. ‘That’s right,’ Matthews said in February this year. ‘When we signed the deal, $1.5 million was given to Wright’s lawyers. But my main job was to set up an engagement with the new lawyers … and transfer Wright’s intellectual property to nCrypt’ – a newly formed subsidiary of nTrust. ‘The deal had the following components: clear the outstanding debts that were preventing Wright’s business from getting back on its feet, and work with the new lawyers on getting the agreements in place for the transfer of any non-corporate intellectual property, and work with the lawyers to get Craig’s story rights.’ From that point on, the ‘Satoshi revelation’ would be part of the deal. ‘It was the cornerstone of the commercialisation plan,’ Matthews said, ‘with about ten million sunk into the Australian debts and setting up in London.’

The plan was always clear to the men behind nCrypt. They would bring Wright to London and set up a research and development centre for him, with around thirty staff working under him. They would complete the work on his inventions and patent applications – he appeared to have hundreds of them – and the whole lot would be sold as the work of Satoshi Nakamoto, who would be unmasked as part of the project. Once packaged, Matthews and MacGregor planned to sell the intellectual property for upwards of a billion dollars. MacGregor later told me he was speaking to Google and Uber, as well as to a number of Swiss banks. ‘The plan was to package it all up and sell it,’ Matthews told me. ‘The plan was never to operate it.’

Clockwise from top left: Hal Finney, Gavin Andresen, Robert MacGregor, Stefan Matthews
Clockwise from top left: Hal Finney, Gavin Andresen, Robert MacGregor, Stefan Matthews

*

Since the time I worked with Julian Assange, my computers have been hacked several times. It isn’t unusual for me to find that material has been wiped, and I was careful to make sure the lawyer’s approach wasn’t part of a sting operation. But I was curious to see what these men had. I assumed MacGregor – or someone behind him – must be the ‘client’ referred to in the email I had received from California. On Thursday, 12 November, I turned up at MacGregor’s office near Oxford Circus, where I signed in under a pseudonym and made my way to a boardroom wallpapered with mathematical formulae. MacGregor came into the room wearing a tailored jacket and jeans, with a blue-edged pocket square in his breast pocket, a scarf and brown brogue boots. He was 47 but looked about 29. There was something studied about him – the Alexander McQueen scarf, the lawyerly punctilio – and I’d never met anyone who spoke so easily about such large sums of money. When I asked him the point of the whole exercise he said it was simple: ‘Buy in, sell out, make some zeroes.’

MacGregor described Wright to me as ‘the goose that lays the golden egg’. He said that if I agreed to take part I would have exclusive access to the whole story, and to everyone around Wright, and that it would all end with Wright proving he was Satoshi by using cryptographic keys that only Satoshi had access to, those associated with the very first blocks in the blockchain. MacGregor told me this might happen at a public TED talk. He said it would be ‘game over’. Wright’s patents would then be sold and Wright could get on with his life, out of the public eye. ‘All he wants is peace to get on with his work,’ MacGregor told me at that first meeting. ‘And how this ends, for me, is with Craig working for, say, Google, with a research staff of four hundred.’

I told MacGregor that there would have to be a process of verification. We talked about money, and negotiated a little, but after several meetings I decided I wouldn’t accept any. I would write the story as I had every other story under my name, by observing and interviewing, taking notes and making recordings, and sifting the evidence. ‘It should be warts and all,’ MacGregor said. He said it several times, but I was never sure he understood what it meant. This was a changing story, and I was the only one keeping account of the changes. MacGregor and his co-workers were already convinced Wright was Satoshi, and they behaved, to my mind, as if that claim was the end of the story, rather than the beginning.

I don’t mean to imply anything sinister. The company was excited by the project and so was I. Very quickly we were working hand in hand: I reserved judgment (and independence) but I was very caught up in the thought of the story unfolding as planned. At this point, nobody knew who Craig Wright was, but he appeared, from the initial evidence, to have a better claim to being Satoshi Nakamoto than anyone else had. He seemed to have the technical ability. He also had the right social history, and the timeline worked. The big proof was up ahead, and how could it not be spectacular? I went slowly forward with the project, and said no to everything that would hamper my independence. This would become an issue later on with MacGregor and Matthews, or the men in black, as I’d taken to calling them, but for those first few months, nobody asked me to sign anything and nobody refused me access. Mysteries would open up, and some would remain, but there seemed no mystery about the fact that these people were confident that a supremely important thing was happening and that the entire process should be witnessed and recorded. My emails to MacGregor took it for granted that what would be good for my story, in terms of securing proof, would also be good for his deal, and that seemed perfectly true. Yet I feel bad that I didn’t warn him of the possibility that this might not be what happened, that my story wouldn’t die if the deal died, that human interest doesn’t stop at success.

It was at this point, four weeks after my first meeting with MacGregor, that Wired and Gizmodo reported that he might be Satoshi. The news unleashed a tsunami of responses from the cryptocurrency community, and most of it was bad for Wright’s credibility. Had he left artificial footprints to suggest his involvement with bitcoin had been earlier than it was? Had he exaggerated the number and nature of the degrees he’d accumulated from various universities? Why did the company that supplied the supercomputer he claimed to have bought with amassed bitcoin say it had never heard of him?

‘The smell,’ as one commentator said, ‘was a mile high.’ The nCrypt people were unfazed by this mudslinging, believing that every one of the charges made against Wright could be easily disproved. Wright produced an impressive paper showing that his ‘footprint’ wasn’t faked and that the ‘cryptographic’ evidence against him was bogus (people continue to argue on this point). He produced a letter from the supercomputer supplier acknowledging the order. Charles Sturt University provided a photocopy of his staff card, proving he had lectured there, and Wright sent me a copy of the thesis he’d submitted for a doctorate his critics claim he doesn’t have.

*

I had arrived five minutes early at 28-50 Degrees, a wine bar and restaurant in Mayfair. It was just before 1 p.m. on 16 December and the lunchtime crowd, men in blue suits and white shirts, were eating oysters and baby back ribs and drinking high-end wine by the glass. A jeroboam of Graham’s ten-year-old tawny port stood on the bar, and I was inspecting it when MacGregor arrived with Mr and Mrs Smith. That’s what he’d been calling them in his emails to me. Craig Wright, 45 years old, wearing a white shirt under a black jacket, a pair of blue chinos, a belt with a large Armani buckle and very green socks, wasn’t the kind of guy who seems comfortable in a swish restaurant. He sat across from me and lowered his head and at first he let MacGregor do the talking. Ramona was very friendly, chatting about their time in London as if they were a couple of holidaymakers who’d just blown into Mayfair. She wasn’t drinking, but the rest of us ordered a glass of Malbec each. When Wright lifted his head to laugh at something, I noticed he had a nice smile but uneven teeth, and a scar that climbed from the top of his nose to the area just above his left eyebrow. He hadn’t shaved since he’d left Sydney.

Wright told me he was rubbish at small talk. He too wanted what I wrote to be ‘warts and all’; he felt he was being misunderstood by everybody, and normally that wouldn’t bother him but he had to consider the respectability of his work, and his family’s rights. He appeared to ponder this for a moment, then he told me his old neighbours at the house in Gordon hadn’t been friendly.

‘They barely even knew your name,’ Ramona said.

‘They do now,’ he replied.

I found him easier to talk to than I’d expected. He said his father had worked for the NSA (he couldn’t explain this), but that, to this day, his mother thinks he worked for Nasa. ‘The few people I care about I care about a lot,’ he said, ‘and I care about the state of the world. But there’s not much in between.’ He said he was happy I was writing about him because he wanted ‘to step into history’, but mainly because he wanted to tell the story of the brilliant people he had collaborated with. He and Ramona were both jet-lagged and anxious about things back home. ‘We should have been having our company’s Christmas party today,’ Ramona said.

MacGregor asked Wright if being a libertarian had influenced his work, or if the work had turned him into a libertarian. ‘I was always libertarian,’ he replied, and then he told me his father had more or less kidnapped him after his parents got divorced. He hated being told what to do – that was one of his main motivations. He believed in freedom, and in what freedom would come to mean, and he said his work would guarantee a future in which privacy was protected. ‘Where we are,’ he said, ‘is a place where people can be private and part of that privacy is to be someone other than who they were. Computing will allow you to start again, if you want to. And that is freedom.’ In fact he never stopped imagining different lives for himself. That afternoon he seemed preoccupied by the case people were making against his being Satoshi. He shook his head a lot and said he wished he could just get on in silence with his work. ‘If you want to stay sane through this, ignore Reddit,’ his wife told him.

The next day, 17 December, we met again, in a private room in Claridge’s. You could see outside, over the rooftops, cranes garlanded in fairy lights. Ramona came in looking tired and totally fed up. From time to time, especially when exhausted, she would resent the hold these people had over them. ‘We have sold our souls,’ she said to me in a quiet moment.

MacGregor said he would spend the evening preparing paperwork to be signed by Wright the following day. This would effectively be the final signing over to nCrypt of the intellectual property held by Wright’s companies. This was the main plank in the deal. MacGregor was confident the work was ‘world historical’, that it would change the way we lived. He regularly described the blockchain as the greatest invention since the internet. He said that what the internet had done for communication, the blockchain would do for value.

MacGregor explained that Wright’s Australian companies were being signed over to nCrypt and that he’d extended an ‘olive branch’ to the ATO, which had responded quickly and positively. A lot of trouble with the ATO had to do with whether bitcoin was a commodity or a currency and how it should be taxed. It also had doubts about whether Wright’s companies had done as much research and development as they claimed, and whether they were therefore entitled to the tax rebates they had applied for. The ATO had said it couldn’t see where the spending was going. Some critics in the media claimed Wright’s companies had been set up only for the purpose of claiming rebates, though not even the ATO went that far.

Wright told me that thanks to the tax office they’d had to lay out all the research for their patents, which had been useful since the nCrypt team was in a hurry: the banks, now alert to cryptocurrencies and the effectiveness of the blockchain, are rushing to create their own versions. At that moment, Bank of America was patenting ten ideas for which Craig and his team told me they had a claim to ‘prior art’. Governments spent a long time denying the value of bitcoin – seeing it as unstable, or the currency of criminals – but now they celebrate the potential of the technology behind it.

‘They’re behaving like children,’ Wright said of the ATO.

MacGregor looked at his watch. He straightened his cuffs. ‘I see this as a pivotal moment in history … It’s like being able to go back in time and watch Bill Gates in the garage.’ He turned to Wright. ‘You released this thing into the wild. Some people got it right and some people got it wrong. But you’ve got a vision of where it’s going next and next and next.’

‘None of this would have worked without bitcoin,’ Wright said, ‘but it’s a wheel and I want to build a car.’

Ramona looked depressed. She was worried that her husband, as the person claiming to have invented bitcoin, might be held liable for the actions of those who’d used the currency for nefarious purposes. ‘He didn’t issue a currency,’ MacGregor assured her. ‘This is just technology – it is not money.’ Ramona was still anxious. ‘We’re talking about legal risk … I’m giving you the legal answer,’ MacGregor said. ‘I would stake my career on the fact that the creation of bitcoin is not a prosecutable event.’

Right to the end, the Wrights would express worries about things Craig did as a young computer forensics worker. Much of his professional past looked questionable, but in the meeting room at Claridge’s he simply batted the past away. ‘It’s what you’re doing now that matters. I’m not perfect. I never will be … All these different people arguing about what Satoshi should be at the moment, it’s crazy.’

Ninjutsu

Wright’s father, Frederick Page Wright, was a forward scout in Vietnam, serving with the 8th Battalion of the Australian army. ‘He lost all his friends,’ Wright told me, ‘every single one of them’ – and before long he was drinking and being violent towards Wright’s mother, who eventually left him. Both Wright and his mother, when I went to meet her in Brisbane in March, told me about his father’s anger at his own mother: he sent all his army pay cheques home to her and she spent them while he was away. He also dreamed of a football career that never happened. ‘I have a chip on my shoulder,’ Wright said, ‘but his was bigger.’

‘Did you admire him?’

‘He never admired me. I was never fucking good enough. We played chess from when I was three or four and if I made a wrong move he’d wallop me. We clashed right from the beginning.’

The boy had two great influences. The first was his grandfather Ronald Lyman, who his family claims received the first degree awarded by the Marconi School of Wireless in Australia, and who served in the army as a signals officer. They also say he later became a spy with the Australian security services. Craig’s favourite place was his grandfather’s basement, a paradise of early computing. ‘We’d sit there and look at these books of log tables,’ he told me. ‘I loved doing it.’ Captain Lyman had an old terminal and a Hayes 80-103A modem that they used to connect to the University of Melbourne’s network. To keep Craig quiet while he worked, Pop, as the children called him, would let him write code. ‘I found this community of hackers,’ Wright says, ‘and I worked out how to interact with them. I started building games and hacking other people’s games. In time, I’d be pulling apart hacker code, and eventually I did this for companies, to help them create defences against hackers.’

His mother told me he was sometimes picked on at school. ‘He struggled,’ she said, ‘but after a while I sent him to Padua College’ – a private Catholic college in Brisbane – ‘and he shone there. I mean, he was different. He used to dress up and he had an obsession with Japanese culture. He had big samurai swords.’

‘As a teenager?’

‘Dressed up in samurai clothes, with the odd wooden shoes and everything. Making all the noises. His sisters would complain about him embarrassing them: “We’re down the park, we’ve got friends down there, and he’s walking around with webbed feet.” He used to have this group of nerdy friends in the 1980s: they’d come around in horn-rimmed glasses and play Dungeons & Dragons for hours.’

He had a karate teacher called Mas who moved him quickly from karate through judo to Ninjutsu. Craig broke his knuckles over and over again and ‘became stronger’, he told me, because ‘the pain led to a “me” that could handle more.’ The thing that attracted him most to martial arts was the discipline. Learning to become a ninja involves 18 disciplines, including bōjutsu (tactics), hensōjutsu (disguise and impersonation), intonjutsu (escape and concealment) and shinobi-iri (stealth and infiltration). He walked home from his lessons feeling stronger, like another self.

When he was 18, Wright joined the air force. ‘They locked me in a bunker,’ he told me, ‘and I worked on a bombing system. Smart bombs. We needed fast code, and I did that.’ When he was in his twenties a melanoma appeared on his back and he had several skin grafts. ‘This was after he got out of the air force,’ his mother told me, ‘and when he recovered he was off to university, and it’s been degrees, degrees, degrees since then.’ He went to the University of Queensland to study computer systems engineering. And over the following 25 years he would finish, or not finish, or finish and not do the graduation paperwork for degrees in digital forensics, nuclear physics, theology, management, network security, international commercial law and statistics. After our first full interview, he went home to work on an assignment for a new course he was taking at the University of London, a masters in quantitative finance.

Over the months I spent with him, I noticed that he loved the idea of heroism and was strongly attracted to creation myths. One of the first things he emailed me was a copy of one of his dissertations, ‘Gnarled Roots of a Creation Mythos’. I noticed it was dedicated to Mas, his martial arts instructor. The text wasn’t merely an argument for self-invention, but a feminist exegesis that railed against patriarchal views of the Fall. Wright also speaks of the pilgrim-visitor in the ‘world garden’. ‘While in the garden, the pilgrim almost inevitably suffers deception. His or her senses, enchanted by illusory and transitory formal appearances, betray his or her soul and lead to sin.’

Wright said he had never expected the myth of Satoshi to gather such force. ‘We were all used to using pseudonyms,’ he told me. ‘That’s the cypherpunk way. Now people want Satoshi to come down from the mountain like a messiah. I am not that. And we didn’t mean to set up a myth that way.’ Satoshi was loved by bitcoin fans for making a beautiful thing and then disappearing. They don’t want Satoshi to be wrong or contradictory, boastful or short-tempered, and they don’t really want him to be a 45-year-old Australian called Craig.

While reading Wright’s ideas on creation, I kept thinking of his karate teacher and the position he had in the young man’s life. An offhand remark Wright made had stayed with me. It was about storytelling and how a possible meaning of freedom might reside not only in martial arts, in the ability to defend oneself, but in the ability to make oneself. Mas ‘taught me a lot of Eastern philosophy and gave me the means to become myself’, Wright said. One day Mas told him about Tominaga Nakamoto. ‘He was a Japanese merchant philosopher,’ Wright told me. ‘I read translations of his stuff, material from the 1740s.’

Weeks later, I was in the kitchen of the house Wright was renting in London drinking tea with him when I noticed a book on the worktop called Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan. I’d done some mugging up by then and was keen to nail the name thing.

‘So that’s where you say you got the Nakamoto part?’ I asked. ‘From the 18th-century iconoclast who criticised all the beliefs of his time?’

‘Yes.’

‘What about Satoshi?’

‘It means “ash”,’ he said. ‘The philosophy of Nakamoto is the neutral central path in trade. Our current system needs to be burned down and remade. That is what cryptocurrency does – it is the phoenix …’

‘So satoshi is the ash from which the phoenix …’

‘Yes. And Ash is also the name of a silly Pokémon character. The guy with Pikachu.’ Wright smiled. ‘In Japan the name of Ash is Satoshi,’ he said.

‘So, basically, you named the father of bitcoin after Pikachu’s chum?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘That’ll annoy the buggery out of a few people.’ This was something he often said, as if annoying people was an art.

Wright’s generation, now in their mid to late forties, are seeing a world that enlarges on their teenage kicks. For Wright, as for Jeff Bezos, the rules of how to shop and how to think and how to live are extrapolations of dreams they had sitting in a box room somewhere. ‘The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in,’ Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, Wright’s favourite novel as a teenager. ‘Dune was really about people,’ Wright told me. ‘It was about the idea that we don’t want to leave things to machines and [should instead] develop as humans. But I see things a little differently from Mr Herbert. I see that it’s not one or the other – man or machines – it’s a symbiosis and a way of becoming something different together.’ This kind of cyberpunk energy – as opposed to cypherpunk, which came later – delivered Wright’s generation of would-be computer scientists into the brightness of the future.[3]

After getting his first degree, Wright settled into IT roles in a number of companies. He became a well-known ‘go-to guy’ among startups and security firms: he always solved the problem and they always came back for more. ‘When I’ve characterised Craig to colleagues and friends,’ Rob Jenkins, who worked with Wright in this period and now holds a senior position in Australia’s Westpac Bank, told me, ‘I’ve always described him as the most qualified person I’ve ever known. I’ve worked with other smart people but Craig has such a strong desire to pursue knowledge. He has passion. And bitcoin was just another one of those bright things he was talking about.’

‘Sketch it out for me,’ I said to Wright. ‘Those years before bitcoin. What was happening that would later have an influence? I want to know about all the precursors, all the previous attempts to solve the problem.’

‘Back in 1997 there was Tim May’s BlackNet …’ May was a crypto-anarchist, who had been operating and agitating in the cypherpunk community since the mid-1980s. ‘Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner,’ he wrote in the Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto in 1988. BlackNet operated like a precursor to WikiLeaks, soliciting secret information with payments made by untraceable, digital money.

‘We all have a narcissistic hubris,’ Wright told me. He wanted to take May’s BlackNet idea further. He was also enthusiastic, in those early days, about Hashcash and B-money. The idea behind Hashcash, a ‘proof of work’ algorithm where each of a group of computers performs a small task that can be instantly verified (thus making life impossible for spammers, who depend on multiple emails going out with little to no work involved), was ‘totally necessary for the building of bitcoin’.[4] Wright said that he spoke to Adam Back, who proposed Hashcash in 1997, ‘a few times in 2008, whilst setting up the first trials of the bitcoin protocol’.

B-Money was invented by a man called Wei Dai. At the time of its creation, Wei wrote a paper which assumed ‘the existence of an untraceable network, where senders and receivers are identified only by digital pseudonyms (public keys) and every message is signed by its sender and encrypted to its receiver’. The public key, or address, is matched, as John Lanchester handily described it in the LRB, to ‘a private key which provides access to that address’. A key is really just a string of numbers and digits: the public key demonstrates ownership of any given address; the private key can only be used by the owner of that address. Wei went on to suggest a system for the exchange and transfer of money. ‘Anyone can create money by broadcasting the solution to a previously unsolved computational problem,’ he wrote. The system had methods for rewarding work and keeping users honest. ‘I admired B-Money,’ Wright told me, ‘and he definitely gave me some of the cryptographic code that ended up in the first version of bitcoin.’ Wright was always careful to give credit to those early developers. ‘Wei was very helpful,’ he went on, but ‘to people like that bitcoin seems a bit of a fudge. It works, but it’s not mathematically elegant.’

‘Wei said that?’

‘Wei was very polite. But others said it: Adam Back, Nick Szabo. They would probably like to find a more elegant solution to the problem. Perhaps they see the mining system in bitcoin as wasteful: there’s wasted computation in my system – machines which are trying to solve problems and not winning. But that’s like society.’

‘Are these early cryptocurrency people in a state of rivalry?’

‘Yes, but it doesn’t matter.’

Kleiman

The flat in Marylebone where I interviewed Wright had wooden shutters and modern ornaments and pictures, mainly of crows. I set the flat up for work while Craig and Ramona were in the City signing over his intellectual property, and all his companies, to MacGregor. They arrived at the flat a couple of hours late. ‘When did you realise the whole Satoshi thing wasn’t going to be a secret for ever?’ I asked.

‘Very recently,’ Wright said. ‘I didn’t really believe it would need to come out. What we believed is that we could leave it in doubt – we wouldn’t have to sign using the Satoshi keys or anything else. We have hundreds of patents and papers in progress – research from the beginning – and in the next year we’re going to start releasing them. We thought people could suspect and people could query and we could leave it like that.’

‘And how did that change?’

Ramona said a single word: ‘Rob.’

The days in St Christopher Place were almost languorous. We would bring coffee back to the flat and spread out, and I’d try to build a picture of how he did what he said he did. We put up whiteboards and he bamboozled me with maths. Sometimes he would write at the board for hours, then tear open books and point to theories and proofs. I talked to the scientists he worked with, many of whom were better explainers than he was. One of the things I noticed was that Wright hated claiming outright to be Satoshi and would spend hours giving credit to everyone who had ever contributed. It was odd: we were in the room because he was coming out as Satoshi, yet the claim embarrassed him and I have many hours of tape in which he deflects it. I felt this unwillingness supported his claim because it showed a proper regard for the communal nature of the work. He was contradictory enough sometimes to enjoy the limelight and actively court it, and this would cause trouble for him, but the idea of speaking directly as Satoshi seemed to fill him with dread. ‘I’m afraid that they’re just going to look at my papers because I’ve got Satoshi after my name,’ he told me. ‘I’ve got my little Satoshi mask on, and people go “Aren’t you wonderful?” because you were Satoshi. I wanted the doubt. When I released future papers, I wanted people to go: “Oh, fuck, he could be, and these papers are so good he might be.”’

Dave Kleiman was to become the most important person in Wright’s professional life, the man he says helped him do Satoshi’s work. They met online: they visited the same cryptography forums and had interacted since 2003. Both men were interested in cyber security, digital forensics and the future of money, but Kleiman was a boy’s boy, an army veteran who loved contact sports and fast living. Five foot ten and weighing 200 pounds, he lived in Riviera Beach, Florida, and from 1986 to 1990 he was an army helicopter technician. When I looked into Kleiman’s life, I discovered he had also done computer forensics work for Homeland Security and the army. After active service he became a deputy in the Palm Beach County sheriff’s office. A motorcycle crash in 1995, when he was 28, left him in a wheelchair. Kleiman was a drug user and one source told me he was heavily into online gambling and various illicit activities; there is evidence he was associated with Silk Road, the online marketplace for all things illegal. After the accident he devoted himself to computers, and set up a company called Computer Forensics LLC.

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[1] John Lanchester wrote about bitcoin and the future of the blockchain in the LRB of 21 April.

[2] Andreas Antonopoulos, a well-respected bitcoin figure, headed a campaign to compensate the 64-year-old Dorian Nakamoto for his trouble. The campaign raised £16,400.

[3] Readers interested in the difference between cypherpunk and cyberpunk and all related matters should start by reading ‘The Cyphernomicon’, a 1994 document by Tim May.

[4] To simplify: it’s a bit like the system used when registering on many web services, when you’re asked to type a specified set of characters into a box. This is ‘proof of work’, something a robot can’t do, and it authenticates the transaction.

[5] Verified Napster use peaked with 26.4 million users worldwide in February 2001, after only two years in existence. The company would only survive in its original form for another five months. Shut down by lawsuits from the likes of Metallica and Dr Dre – in a legal campaign spearheaded by the Recording Industry Association of America – Napster was vanquished as quickly as it appeared, but its short life was well lived. By introducing the concept of peer-to-peer to the world, Napster – and innumerable copycat services – had won the fight the moment they started it. Incidentally – or not – Wright told me he had worked briefly for the RIAA in 2004, doing forensics.

[6] Wright told me the staff didn’t want to be paid in bitcoin. It is worth noting at this point that Wright seems constantly to have been looking for ways to turn his bitcoin into a more useful currency. In one deal, he tried to buy a load of easily convertible gold bullion, and was ripped off. He admitted to me that he had paid a fraudster called Mark Ferrier $85 million in bitcoin and never received the gold.

[7] Around 2008 Wright had been studying for a law degree at the the University of Northumbria and had been reading English newspapers. ‘With my Athens login from the university,’ he said, ‘I was able to access the Times online gratis.’ This might be a good example of Wright’s unnecessary small fibs: online access to the Times was free until July 2010.