Israeli academics Dorit Ron and Adi Shamir thought they may have uncovered an intriguing link between the anonymous creator of the bitcoin digital currency and the illicit online drug marketplace the Silk Road. But it turns out the idea was bunk.
This past weekend, the two researchers published an article describing what they thought might be a transaction between Bitcoin’s founder — who is known only by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto — and the founder of The Silk Road, which was shutdown by the feds earlier this year. But now an Austin, Texas man has come forward to claim ownership of the bitcoin account they thought was Nakamoto’s.
It’s an object lesson in the perils of jumping to conclusions in the world of bitcoin, which has suddenly become a rather popular digital money and payment system. This world is a paradoxical place that is both transparent and very murky.
Here’s how things went wrong. The researchers spotted a bitcoin address that had made a March 2013 transfer to another address known to belong to Dread Pirate Roberts — the creator of the Silk Road, who federal authorities have identified as a man named Ross Ulbricht. And by examining the blockchain — the public ledger of all bitcoin transactions — the researchers then linked that address to an account that was active within a week of Bitcoin’s creation, back in 2009.
Because this account was active so early on, it might have belonged to Nakamoto, the researchers speculated. “The short path we found…suggests (but does not prove) the existence of a surprising link between the two mysterious figures of the bitcoin community,” wrote Ron and Shamir, both of the Weizmann Institute of Science, in their paper. The idea was quickly picked up by media around the world.
On Tuesday, however, a Texas security researcher named Dustin Trammell came forward to thoroughly debunk the theory. The early account was his. Soon after Nakamoto announced the project on cryptography mailing lists, Trammel started mining bitcoins — i.e. helping to operate the worldwide software system that drives bitcoin in exchange for some of the digital money.
The Israeli researchers had linked this account — via several steps — to an address that sent money to the Dread Pirate, and this address, it turns out, was controlled by a Japanese bitcoin exchange called Mt. Gox. Trammel used the address to sell 1,000 bitcoins (worth $60,000 at the time; $1 million today) on the exchange. But anyone could have subsequently bought those bitcoins on the Mt. Gox exchange and then moved them to the Dread Pirate Roberts’ address.
“I hope this puts to rest any further speculation regarding whether or not I am Satoshi Nakamoto and whether or not I have had any involvement with the Silk Road,” Trammell wrote on his blog. “I am not and have not.”
Dustin Trammell is a noted security researcher with a love of cryptography and a penchant for all the color green, says Dragos Ruiu, the organizer of the CanSec West security conference, where Trammell has spoken in the past. Ruiu doesn’t believe that he’s Satoshi Nakamoto.
That the early bitcoin address belonged to Trammell and not Satoshi Nakamoto was already a matter of public record, Trammell said in his blog post. “I am a security researcher and fan of cryptography as well as a Libertarian and a fan of alternative currencies. Being both of these, Bitcoin hit my radar almost immediately when Satoshi posted his original white paper about Bitcoin on October 31 2008,” he wrote.
Reached via email, Trammell declined to comment further on the matter.
Meanwhile, the researchers have retracted their claims after reading Trammel’s post. “We find this post completely believable, and thus we no longer believe that the very early Founder account we identified in the full bitcoin transaction graph belongs to Satoshi Nakamoto,” Adi Shamir said in an email message. “We will revise our paper accordingly.”