Decoding Nakamoto: Language analysis pokes more holes in Newsweek's bitcoin story

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on March 10, 2014

From The News Desk

Give five writing samples to the right person with the right tools, and he might be able to tell you who wrote each. Like fingerprints and voices, the way we write not only says a lot about us, it can give us away if we wish to remain anonymous. With the right questions, you can determine a person's dialect, and place where he was raised within a few miles -- as The New York Times showed with its ingenious Dialect Quiz. It's a linguistic science called "stylometry," which is a highfalutin way of referring to textual analysis.

Matthew Herper at Forbes reports that a firm that uses such methods to identify anonymous authors has concluded that "Newsweek fingered the wrong man as Bitcoin's creator." What's more, Juola & Associates, which performed the analysis, concluded that of a pool of potential Satoshi Nakamotos identified over the years, one that I wrote about in October 2011 for Fast Company "was a better match than any of the other men."

That's right: Well before Newsweek's cover story controversy, several other news outlets had inconclusively outed their own potential Satoshi Nakamoto, including me while I was writing at Fast Company. The difference? None of us claimed to know it with any certainty or publish photos of his possessions. As more questions arise about Newsweek's story, I was interested to see at least one thread of evidence points back to a man I wrote about years ago.

Let me begin by confessing that I don't have anywhere close to complete confidence that the person I looked at two and a half years ago as possibly being Bitcoin's creator is, in fact, Satoshi Nakamoto. John Noecker Jr., chief scientific officer at Juola & Associates, emphasizes that he is also not claiming that the man is Satoshi Nakamoto. He simply concluded that of the small pool of potential bitcoin creators that have come to public light in recent years, mine is the most likely candidate of the group, and that includes Newsweek's alleged bitcoin creator, Dorian S. Nakamoto, who has denied it.

Also, it's important to put my story in context. I published it as a rebuttal to The New Yorker's claims that it had unmasked the crypto-currency's mysterious creator. But I believed that the New Yorker's evidence was thin (and Newsweek's even thinner).

For me, it began half a year before Joshua Davis penned the New Yorker story. Out of curiosity and because I have a knack for tracking down people who don't necessarily want to be found, I did a little digging one night. It didn't take me long to reveal a "stream of stunning coincidences" that pointed to not one but three potential bitcoin creator candidates.

Then I sat on my evidence for several months.

Because all I really had was circumstantial evidence, some of it pretty powerful, which I will get to in a minute. But I didn't have a smoking gun -- some piece of irrefutable evidence that would prove without a shadow of a doubt who the real Satoshi Nakamoto was. Also I wasn't sure I should even out him. Frankly, I wanted to interview him and publish a deep dive into how bitcoin was first conceived and created. That, I believed, would have been one hell of a narrative story. I was totally willing to offer Satoshi Nakamoto anonymity in exchange for his cooperation in answering my questions.

Then The New Yorker story came out, claiming it had located the elusive Satoshi Nakamoto, settling on Michael Clear, a 23-year-old graduate student in cryptography at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Clear denied it, and I believed my evidence was more convincing, so now I was suddenly put in the role of debunker. By publishing my methodology and evidence, I figured I could add to the debate.

In my quest, I, too, had relied on textual analysis, although of a primitive sort compared to the techniques that Juola & Associates use. As Forbes noted, the firm’s methodology was divined by Duquesne University associate professor Patrick Juola, who was "one of the forensic analysts who identified JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author, as the writer of a mystery novel, 'The Cuckoo’s Calling,' that she had published under a pseudonym." This was a secret that Rowling had been keen to keep, and she was furious when it was uncovered.

But my initial inspiration predated Rowling. It was, ironically, an anonymous Newsweek writer. In the 1990s, there was tremendous buzz around the novel "Primary Colors," whose author was listed as "Anonymous." The book offered an inside look at the rough-and-tumble world of politics during a presidential campaign and, as with Satoshi Nakamoto and Bitcoin, a great deal of energy had been expended in finding out who he was. Don Foster, an English professor at Vassar and Shakespearean scholar, conducted a "stylometric" analysis of the writing, which compared patterns of language a person deploys -- syntax, punctuation, phrases.

He settled on Joe Klein, a Newsweek columnist. As The New York Times reported:

His evidence was persuasive. Anonymous and Klein are big on unusual adjectives ending in '-y' ('cartoony,' 'fluttery'), on adverbs constructed from those adjectives ('goofily,' 'huffily'), on words ending in 'ish' ('radicalish' 'wonkish,'), on the word 'gazillion.' They share coinages ('unironic,' 'tarmac-hopping') and usages found nowhere else. They like to play with punctuation. ('Anonymous, like Joe Klein,' Foster writes, 'loves the colon, loves to play with it: thus. And: thus.') There was 'internal biographical evidence,' too. Foster thinks the book's opening sentence -- 'I am small and not so dark' -- is a play on klein, which means small in German, and a tip-off that the book's fictional black narrator was created by a white man.
Klein denied it, then denied it again, stonewalled, and, it must be said, baldly lied. "For God's sake, definitely, I didn't write it," Klein said while covering the 1996 presidential campaign in New Hampshire, responding to a direct question from Foster. Later, Newsweek ran a piece mulling possible Anonymous candidates and didn't mention its own writer. Eventually, Klein admitted that he was indeed Anonymous. So you see, this kind of deep textual analysis, which uncovered both Klein as Anonymous and JK Rowling writing under a pseudonym, has been known to pay dividends.

When I looked into Bitcoin in 2011, I started by extracting unique-sounding fragments from Satoshi Nakamoto's famous paper: "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System" (pdf). After striking out on the first few phrases, I tried "computationally impractical to reverse," which resulted in (at the time) 26 Google search results, the vast majority related to the Bitcoin paper -- except for one of the last ones, which was in a patent application titled "Updating and distributing encryption keys."

After reading the patent, which was dense and not easy for a layman like me to comprehend, I wondered if it could be related to Bitcoin's technology. What are bitcoins but shared secrets? Encryption plays a vital role, and they are certainly dynamic. More telling, though, was the date on the patent application filing: August 15, 2008.

Not only was that the same year as the Bitcoin paper, the domain was registered just three days later, on Aug 18, 2008.

As I wrote:

What are the odds that a phrase in Nakamoto's Bitcoin paper would be replicated in a patent application filed the same year? Further, what are the odds the domain name for Bitcoin would have been registered 72 hours after the patent application was filed?
Three inventors were listed on the patent, and I looked at all three and found even more coincidences. (You can read my original article at Fast Company for more detail.) One of the inventors, Charles Bry, who lived in Munich, had filed several patent applications dealing with nodes and networks, and had traveled to Finland in late 2007, six months before the domain was registered in -- you guessed it: Finland.

A second inventor, Vladimir Oksman, was also listed on several patents that dealt with networks and nodes. I cited the wrong Vladimir Oksman in my Fast Company story, which was a stupid mistake, although I checked into both. One worked at Samsung; the other at a semiconductor company, Lantiq.

The third inventor listed on the patent, Neal J King, was, to me, the most intriguing. He had a Facebook page and his wall was filled with posts about the Wall Street protests, banking, and criticism of the Patriot Act. With highbrow taste in literature and books, he had, at the time, reviewed 46 books on Amazon, with many of them pertaining to astronomy, biology, cryptography, linguistics, literature, mathematics, philosophy and physics.

I wrote in Fast Company: "I read through his reviews, and his writing is excellent. Very clean. No typos. His sentences are elegant yet there are no extra words. The writing style reminds me of Satoshi Nakamoto's posts in the Bitcoin Forum…"

All three men denied involvement in bitcoin, with King providing the most thoughtful response, claiming he had never heard of bitcoin unit I mentioned it, and that as he looked into it he had concluded that "it's not a very good idea."

"So whether I have dazzled you with my insight, or baffled you with my obtuseness, I think you will agree that no one who would write the paragraphs above would have invested the considerable amount of time Nakamoto spent elaborating the Bitcoin concept."

I didn't find his denial all that convincing. It struck me as unlikely that a cryptographer with King's evident skills had never heard of Bitcoin. To me that would have been like a journalist who had never heard of Twitter in 2011.

But, and I need to stress this, in my piece I wrote:

… the point of this column isn't to claim we found Satoshi Nakamoto. It's to show how circumstantial evidence, which is what the New Yorker based its conclusions on, isn't synonymous with truth. I doubt the New Yorker found the right guy. I also believe that our evidence is far more compelling, yet we also probably haven't nailed it either. In fact, we may have to wait a Deep Throat length of time before we ever find out who the real Nakamoto is, and by then it might not matter.
Now, I would argue that the proof I presented is more convincing than what Newsweek trumpeted in its recent cover story. You can decide for yourself (but before you do read the original Fast Company piece, which provide much more information and depth.) Subsequently, as we reported in Pando, Jim Impoco stands by the story and on Twitter claimed that those of us who have criticized Newsweek for its story are just jealous. Nevertheless, I've been consistent from the beginning that I think Newsweek has the wrong man. Forbes' report on Juola & Associates using textual analysis reached the same conclusion.

In a humorous side note, my wife and I were watching an episode of The Good Wife from season three that has Alicia defending someone involved with Bitcoin against the Treasury Department. To find out who actually created Bitcoin, Kalinda Sharma, the firm's savvy, butt-kicking investigator, relies on textual analysis, extracting phrases from the original Bitcoin paper and connecting it to a patent and… you get the idea.

I wasn't credited for that little piece of plot. I was more an anonymous contributor to the episode, which, given the circumstances, is entirely fitting, wouldn't you say?

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]