Hunt for the world’s most wanted man reaches Estonia

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Bitcoin.

PHOTO: BENOIT TESSIER/REUTERS

They disappeared into thin air. The creator of virtual currency bitcoin wrote a brief email under the alias Satoshi Nakamoto in April of 2011 in which they stated they will now move on to other things.

That is the last the world heard of Nakamoto. The bitcoin boom rages on, however, and has made the mystical Satoshi Nakamoto one of the 50 wealthiest people in the world – their account held $12 billion worth of bitcoins as of yesterday. Estonia’s state budget for 2018 is €10.3 billion.

Satoshi Nakamoto posted an article describing bitcoin as a virtual money system where people could make transactions without the need for a third party – usually banks – in cryptographers’ online environment metzdowd.com on October 31, 2008.

Nakamoto registered the website bitcoin.org and called for help in developing the virtual currency. One of his profiles lists his date of birth as April 5, 1975.

The search for the real Nakamoto begins as soon as he disappears. Who is he?

The likeliest candidates are cryptographers and computer scientists in USA and Europe.

Even though Nakamoto has presented himself as Japanese, people looking for his true identity do not hold that likely. Bitcoin software and code hold no evidence of Japanese. The approximately five hundred emails and messages sent by Nakamoto are in proper English, with linguistic analysis rather pointing to the British Isles and not America.

One eager member of the forum looked at the time Nakamoto’s messages were sent and concluded that the creator of the bitcoin sleeps between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. Estonian time. This would place them on the US East Coast.

On the last day of 2017, Los Angeles lawyer Justin Sobaje sends an email to Estonia. He is convinced the recipient of the letter is Satoshi Nakamoto.

He also sends letters to major American newspapers – Los Angeles Times, The New York Times. In the United Kingdom, he goes for The Sun as the paper has run a lengthy piece on Nakamoto just a few days prior.

Sobaje’s email lands in the inboxes of Postimees – the editor-in-chief and all investigative desk journalists – in the final hour of January 3. “I have a theory that the unknown author of the bitcoin Satoshi Nakamoto is Estonian. It is Helger Lipmaa,” Sobaje writes.

Lipmaa is a leading research fellow in the field of cryptography at the University of Tartu Computer Sciences Institute.

Multiple concurrences

Sobaje writes that he is convinced – based on an article in which Nakamoto first describes the nature of bitcoin – that the author or authors of the piece had to have been experts of timestamping technology and hash trees.

That is the focus of Helger Lipmaa’s doctoral thesis and scientific papers published in the late 1990s.

Next, Sobaje points out that the article that first describes bitcoin technology cites eight earlier papers. Three of them have also been cited by Lipmaa in the thesis he defended at the University of Tartu in 1999.

Lipmaa has cited another two articles the original creator of the bitcoin also cites on his homepage. Conclusion: Lipmaa knows five out of eight articles.

Sobaje continues: “Satoshi was an experienced C++ programmer. Lipmaa created timestamping software while working at Cybernetica.” He lists the years Lipmaa spent working for the company until two years before the birth of bitcoin.

Satoshi Nakamoto was extremely talented in mathematics, Sobaje concludes, and continues: Lipmaa made the podium of Estonian mathematics Olympiads as a high school student and graduated from university with honors in just three years.

He moves forward: Nakamoto’s birthday is allegedly April 5, 1975. Lipmaa’s birthday is very close if you subtract three from one place and add three in another.

How was the name Satoshi Nakamoto created? Sobaje has found three Japanese cryptographers mentioned on Lipmaa’s website – Satoshi Obana, Junko Nakajima, Takeshi Okamoto – and concludes that the name of the world’s most wanted man is a combination of the three.

Nakamoto’s proper English? Sobaje has found the answer: Lipmaa was a guest lecturer in London for two years.

The lawyer has also found support for his theory on Lipmaa’s blog. Bitcoin.org was registered at around the same time Lipmaa moved back to Estonia from London. Lipmaa has written in his blog that he has not added an entry in a long time not because he has nothing to do, but rather because he has too much on his plate.

Nakamoto was inactive online in September and December of 2008. Sobaje has an explanation. Lipmaa was busy attending conferences abroad.

Sobaje continues in writing that many people believe Nakamoto must be extremely talented. Lipmaa has written his IQ is 162.

When Nakamoto became active online in 2008, Lipmaa shut down his blog.

From there, Sobaje goes into detail and finds that both Nakamoto and Lipmaa use similar expressions and signs in online communication: BTW, just and :). And that’s his whole proof.

Lipmaa does not understand the connection

Helger Lipmaa eventually answers a Skype call. He has failed to answer Postimees’ phone calls, text messages, and emails during the day. He says he had a difficult day. “I most certainly am not Satoshi, and I do not understand why he has picked my name,” Lipmaa says.

He continues by saying that Sobaje has made the connection between blockchains (the solution bitcoin is based on – ed.) and timestamping. “I’m glad the public has come to realize these two fields are linked,” he adds.

Lipmaa says that Sobaje’s research brought him as far as the early 1990s, but that he missed a groundbreaking paper in the field of timestamping technology Lipmaa, Ahto Buldas, Jan Willemson, and Peeter Laud published in 1998.

Lipmaa mentions he has also been contacted by The New York Times.

He explains why he is convinced the author of the bitcoin was not a cryptographer: the system is complicated but far from ideal. Additionally, there is no user anonymity. That is why the whole world now knows that Satoshi Nakamoto, whoever he is, is an insanely wealthy person.

Lipmaa owns three apartments in downtown Tartu and one in Pärnu county.

Finally, Lipmaa asks his name not to be mentioned in the press.

Professor of software science at the Tallinn University of Technology Ahto Buldas, who worked with Lipmaa on timestamping technology in the late 1990s, laughs out loud when told an American lawyer believes Lipmaa to be Nakamoto. “The timestamping field was a compact one, there weren’t many players there to begin with,” Buldas says.

He explains that bitcoin is like a global account book and all approximately five thousand servers hold a copy of that book. “The number of scientists that worked on it at the time was not great, while there are other candidates for Nakamoto. I don’t want to say that Lipmaa is not Satoshi Nakamoto; even though I don’t really believe it, it cannot be ruled out either,” he says. “We could all have been Nakamotos.”

However, Buldas adds that looking at the nature of bitcoin, it is probable it was created by a group of people and not a single person.

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