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The latest Bitcoin inventor claims don't add up

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Craig Steven Wright says he created Bitcoin, but the math isn't on his side

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Bitcoin is based on a simple idea: all you need is math. It’s the same idea that fueled the cypherpunks and forged large parts of the web. If you get the math right, you can trust it, and then you don’t need to trust authorities or institutions. Over time, those authorities will wither away — whether it’s IBM, Ma Bell, or the Federal Reserve.

For the past seven years, the hunt for Bitcoin’s mysterious inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, has proceeded in much the same way. No one knew if Nakamoto was already part of the Bitcoin community under another name, or even if he was a single person. All we had was a series of mathematical constructs: a private key, coins or mining fees from an early block, a massively valuable bitcoin wallet linked to Nakamoto. If a person could prove ownership of any of them, it would prove they were Satoshi.

"I believe Craig Steven Wright is the person who invented Bitcoin."

This morning, Craig Steven Wright tried to do just that. In December, the Australian businessman was put forward as a possible founder of Bitcoin by Wired and Gizmodo. After the news broke, Bitcoin fans discovered a string of apparent fabrications from Wright’s past, and Wright was brought up on charges by Australian tax authorities on uncertain grounds.

Now he has come forward to name himself as Satoshi, giving interviews to a number of publications and key figures in the Bitcoin world. After meeting with Wright, Bitcoin core developer Gavin Andresen stated unequivocally, "I believe Craig Steven Wright is the person who invented Bitcoin." Others are less convinced, believing Wright has come forward to drum up interest in a new supercomputer venture. But even skeptics have to admit, Wright is the strongest candidate we’ve ever had. He claims to be Satoshi Nakamoto — and some of the biggest names in Bitcoin believe him.

What’s missing is the math. Wright’s demonstration showed both reporters and Andresen a signature produced by a unique private key believed to belong to Satoshi Nakamoto. But that signature seems to have be pulled from a public message signed by Nakamoto in 2009, as researcher Patrick McKenzie showed on Github. The message failed to verify when McKenzie attempted to test it, a result of changes made to the OpenSSL protocol in the last seven years.

Other proof has turned out to be difficult to come by. Wright says the early Satoshi-linked bitcoin are all owned by a trust, so he can't prove his identity by spending them. Andresen claims to have witnessed more definitive cryptographic proof that Wright holds the keys, but without anything to verify, we’re left to take him at his word.

Beyond the technical details, the takeaway is simple: Wright doesn’t have any math to back up his claim. Even worse, he pretended to have something he didn’t, and seems to have fooled an awful lot of people along the way. As a result, many observers are still demanding proof, particularly now that Wright seems eager to establish himself as Bitcoin’s mythical inventor. "Wright needs to sign something new, today, to prove he holds the crypto keys," said Bloq’s Jeff Garzik, a central developer in the Bitcoin world.

Cornell professor Emin Gun Sirer, who specializes in cryptocurrency, was even less tactful."We have yet to see proper cryptographic proof," Sirer said in a statement. "What we’ve seen looks like a deliberate attempt to mislead."

That leaves Bitcoin in a difficult place. Even before the Wright news, the system was in bad shape, with transactions taking as long as 43 minutes to work through an overstuffed network. Efforts to fix those issues have split the community in two, as Core and Classic developers move forward with two different versions of the Bitcoin software.

Finding the One True Satoshi could be the perfect way to resolve that split and unite the two factions — but instead, Wright seems to have only deepened the divide. The Economist reports that Wright favors Andresen’s version of Bitcoin, furthering the political implications of this morning’s news. But if Wright wants to convince the community, he’s picked a bad way to do it. So far, his case has been all authority and no math.