It is possible that every literary work—every essay, short story, novel, poem—has a collection of characteristics that unambiguously belongs to one author and one author only. Every written work, literary or not—instant messenger transcript, email, tweet—may also have these characteristics. These characteristics are discoverable; they can be grouped, enumerated, quantified, diagrammed, published, studied. Once these stylistic characteristics are known, once they are taken in aggregate, it is possible that their contours are as unambiguous as the loops and whorls of a physical fingerprint. Whether an author possesses one stylistic fingerprint or ten is difficult to say. It also is unknown whether the fingerprint or fingerprints are evident to the casual reader, or whether these characteristics, like latent fingerprints, are only known after complex, expert processing. But if these characteristics do exist, if they can be enumerated and quantified, then this same author, through modest tricks and creative reshuffling, can also evade stylistic profiling. This writer can, like a safecracker wearing latex fingertips, masquerade as another author. He or she can, like a safecracker sanding down fingerprints, erase identity, becoming anonymous, a statistical non-entity.
Metzger, Dowdeswell & Co. LLC is a New York computer security firm founded in 2003 by computer scientists Perry Metzger and Roland Dowdeswell. The firm’s website, Metzdowd.com, is a single page consisting solely of the company title plus three sentences: “This web site does not yet have content. Please come back later. Click here for the Cryptography mailing list.” The last sentence, a hyperlink, links a visitor to the policy statement for “a low-noise moderated mailing list devoted to cryptographic technology and its political impact.” On Friday, October 31, 2008, at 2:10pm Eastern Daylight Time, someone using the name “Satoshi Nakamoto” posted a message to this list with the subject line: “Bitcoin P2P e-cash paper.” The message contained a link to an academic paper outlining a “purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash [that] would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution.”
Within a few days, list members responded to Nakamoto’s paper. Members questioned the amount of bandwidth the system requires over time, the security implications involved with verifying transactions, as well as the basic rules for the system. Satoshi Nakamoto civilly responded to each objection, sending many emails over the next few months. All exchanges were carried out in English, and, at least in Nakamoto’s case, very good English. The English was British in spelling, and his sentences were separated by double spaces—an idiosyncratic stylistic choice. The Bitcoin paper uses the same patterns, with double spaces and British spellings. By 2009, Nakamoto released the first version of the Bitcoin software implementing the ideas outlined in the paper. That same year, Nakamoto joined the forum Bitcointalk.org, again using British spellings and double spaces. Over a period of almost one year, he posted 574 messages on Bitcointalk.org alone. In April 2011, Satoshi Nakamoto sent an email to a fellow Bitcoin developer that he was no longer participating in the community. He wrote that he was “moving on to other things.” After that, Bitcoin’s Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared.
Thank you for participating in this study. The study has three tasks, to be completed in the following order.
For the first part, please submit 6,500 words of your own writing. All submitted writing must have been done for a “formal purpose”—essays for publication, school papers, professional reports, etc. All citations, editing notes, and writing that is not your own should be removed. Quotations are to be kept to a minimum.
The second part should be a piece of new writing, 500 words, written in a manner that obscures your writing style. This new, “obfuscated” work should describe your neighborhood to someone that has never visited your neighborhood. It should be a work of description, although please fell free to include any other relevant details regarding your neighborhood.
Before you begin the third part, please read the short work of fiction provided with the study. The work is an excerpt from Cormac McCarthy’s 2006 novel, The Road. After reading the excerpt, write 500 words describing a day of your life in the style of Cormac McCarthy. The style of the piece should be as close to McCarthy’s style as possible. Write the piece from a third-person perspective. If you wish, you may only describe part of your day. You can include actual or fictitious events.
The field of stylometry is devoted to identifying authorship through linguistic analysis. Given an unattributed written work and a large corpus of works by potential authors, stylometry is able to match the unattributed work to an author. Stylometric techniques can also compare anonymous works to each other and then attribute these works to multiple Jane and John Does. The stylistic features used by stylometry are numerous, including sentence length, vocabulary diversity, word-length distribution, Gunning fog and Flesch-Kincaid readability tests, punctuation, function words, specific jargon, grammatical errors, idiosyncratic usage, and cultural differences in spelling. Contemporary stylometry has become a thoroughly computational field, with genetic algorithms and neural networks doing the heavy lifting. Despite this, there is controversy as to whether stylometry is an accurate enough science to be used in court cases, and, within the field, there is no consensus regarding a standard set of stylometric techniques.
Among researchers, a high moment of stylometric analysis is represented by the problem of attributing the authorship of 12 of 85 Federalist Papers. Published anonymously by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison in 1787 and 1788, the Federalist Papers attempted to persuade the citizens of New York State to ratify the United States Constitution. Most of the essays have been attributed to the three authors, with 12 not attributed to any of the three. Stylometry, in part, gave some weight to the theory that James Madison was the author of all of the unattributed papers, though there was not complete agreement among all stylometric studies; and, for some scholars, stylometry only provided an affirmation of what was already determined though other means.
Until recently, few in the field considering the possibility that an author could dodge stylometric detection by consciously changing stylistic tics, swapping words for synonyms, shrinking or expanding vocabulary, or reshuffling usual punctuation. The author could also employ pastiche, masquerading as another author and consequently causing a false attribution to that second author. A text might be a collaborative effort, too, with either several authors contributing different passages, or an unknown number of collaborators offering stylistic cover for the original author. Software as well might be used to introduce consistent stylistic changes to the text, either by using a custom application, or by processing a text repeated times through an online translation service.
In 2012, Michael Brennan, Sadia Afroz, and Rachel Greenstadt raised these questions in their paper, “Adversarial Stylometry: Circumventing Authorship Recognition to Preserve Privacy and Anonymity.” When the three researchers tested the same stylometric methods on both “adversarial” texts and non-adversarial, the “honest” texts were detected almost all of the time, whereas the adversarial texts by the same authors scored at about random, depending on the methods used and tested. Three methods were used to produce the adversarial texts: in the first, the participants were free to use any method they saw appropriate to evading detection. The results were enormously effective. When using only five participants without any prior experience in adversarial stylometry, the participants were able to drop detection rates from above 70 percent to less than 20—i.e., below random. Using the second technique (writing in the style of another author—in this case, Cormac McCarthy) was less effective than the first, but still dropped detection rates to between 50 and 60 percent. Unexpectedly, the only technique that did not work well, dropping detection only slightly, was translating the text through Google Translate and Bing Translator. The researchers found that two-step translation, where the text is sent through two languages, rather than just one, proved more effective. For those who wished to evade detection, the news was good: one only must attempt to change one’s style, and, most likely, it will work.
In their paper, Brennan, Afroz, and Greenstadt explicitly state that they are concerned with preserving online anonymity. The three give as an example a whistleblower who is writing an anonymous blog about her workplace and who might be in need of a tool that helps evade stylometric detection. They quote WikiLeak’s Daniel Domscheit-Berg as saying that if the WikiLeaks organizational documents had been subjected to stylometry, it would have become obvious that only two people wrote most of the public releases. (Publicly, WikiLeaks was claiming it employed more than two people.) Along with their research, Brennan, Afroz, and Greenstadt also developed an application, Anonymouth—what they call an “authorship evasion (anonymization) framework.” Although their research suggests that an amateur can evade detection simply by changing his or her style, software could make that process more likely to succeed. As of today, this software does not exists for general use. Until it does, though, stylometric evasion will remain a specialist preoccupation, available only to spies, hackers, linguists, and criminals who might also take an interest in academic computer science journals.
The first decade of online identity can be characterized by discontinuity, by multiple digital selves scattered across bulletin boards, comments sections, IRC rooms, and mailing lists. Each site and service required a new user account, each user account began a different identity, each identity isolated from all others. The reasons were technical: without a standard like OAuth, a user’s data trails were isolated on a host’s server, unable to be pooled across services and cross-referenced. In a single day, one could join a bulletin board devoted to socialist politics, argue about Hollywood careers on a Usenet group, and participate in an mailing list devoted to erotic fiction, without governments, corporations, or other users linking the accounts to oneself. Citizens of this disjointed republic were not technically anonymous; they were pseudonymous. With identities siloed, a user was a username, often several usernames, and revelations of offline life were rare and untrustworthy. While pseudonymity created freer speech, with this freer speech came violence: stalking, intimidation, trolling. Sock puppets—multiple accounts created by a single person—could artificially amplify a user’s opinions, tipping the balance of a debate away from more honest participants. Without reputation systems to rate online exchanges, online marketplaces, too, were shaded with uncertainty and fraud. The Internet was seen as being prone to massive con jobs; it was a place of unverifiable personalities and untrustworthy services—all of which provided material for magazine feature stories and deathly serious public service announcements. If corporations were going to survive a digital economy, the neighborhood needed gentrifying.
To do so, Silicon Valley created its own ontological watchdogs. In Facebook’s terms of service, for example, a username must be tied to real person. If the user does not exist, the account will be banned. With one account per person, a user’s identity was more probable. With a more probable identity, data could be more reliably mined—and, of course, advertising could be better targeted. Age, marital status, reading habits, mood, health, geographic location—not to mention visual representation and financial data—produced an online subject whose financial desires could be modeled, whose future purchases could be predicted. Facebook gained an advantage in this standardization of identity by beginning on American university campuses. Admission to the site was only granted to students with an edu email account, therefore making it more likely the account matched an offline identity. When the site opened to high school students, it was on an invitation-only basis—again improving the chances that each account represented a person. When Facebook opened its platform to third-party developers, the company gained the ability to track users across multiple websites, thus allowing for data aggregation far beyond the confines of Facebook.com. Like an updated Alphonse Bertillon crossed with the Pinkerton Agency, Facebook created an unprecedented profiling and worldwide surveillance system, with every digital trace tightening the focus on a user’s identity.
While Silicon Valley was diligently converting users into marketable subjects, several countermovements emerged. The image-sharing site, 4chan, was launched one year before Facebook, and while 4chan was not built with a conscious political program, anonymity is central to its anarchic culture. Like its Japanese template, 2chan, a website devoted to anime discussions, 4chan does not offer registration for its users. All 4chan users must post as “Anonymous,” a design choice that exacerbates much of the site’s extreme imagery and discussion. An immense meme machine, one can find any kind of imagery on 4chan, from saccharine pet photos to scatological pornography, with brief and unwelcome glimpses of child porn and real gore along the way. 4chan quickly became the Internet’s unappeasable id—a place one could go to find any image, imaginable or not. Improbably, in 2008, 4chan’s frantic culture gave rise to Anonymous, the hacker activist movement. From the Internet’s id, then, came its superego: a near-vigilante hacker movement that declared war on everyone from the Church of Scientology to George W. Bush. Like Occupy Wall Street after it, the movement was headless, moved by a tacit political cohesiveness that may or may not existed. Anonymous deleted all proper names and bylines; if the movement was to be effective, it had to be masked, preferably with Guy Fawkes.
On 4chan, meanwhile, anonymity was a promise, not a guarantee. IP addresses were and are logged, and for a government agency surveying 4chan, a user’s identity could be discovered with routine police work. (4chan has cooperated with many police investigations over the years.) It would take a politicized cryptography community, the cypherpunk movement, to deliver the materiel necessary for anonymity. With the invention of public-key encryption in the 1970s, military grade encryption became, for the first time, available to the general public. By the early 1990s, a group of encryption experts gathered around a list hosted by the San Francisco firm, Cygnus Solutions. Their discussions went beyond protocols, however: driven by a libertarian politics verging on digital survivalism, list members, later dubbed “Cypherpunks,” fantasized about a society based on decentralized cryptography, rather than human institutions. Though some members were on the political left, most were rightwing libertarians who found enemies in corporate American and the federal government alike. Central to their discussions was the concept of social trust: as a society, we put our trust into various institutions—we believe that a bank will keep our money in our checking accounts, and we know this bank will accurately update our balances when we make exchanges. But, according to cypherpunks, all institutions will eventually break our trust, as seen in the recent mortgage crisis. Since cryptography is based on strong mathematical proof, one could construct cryptography systems to verify identities and transactions without any need of a human institution. One would not need a bank to tell us a balance in a checking account; a cryptographic system could do so more reliably. Through concepts like “proof of work,” one could prove, given a cryptographic algorithm, that a computer had done a certain amount of work, regardless of the purpose of that work. It was a libertarian mathematician’s dreamland: a society run, not by untrustworthy humanity, but by the uncorrupted reason of mathematics.
For theorist Franco Moretti, literary history is a slaughterhouse, one whose branching corrals end, more often than not, in obliteration. For as long as there was a reading public, thousands of writers made up the unlucky herd, some finding publication, fewer finding an audience, and almost none entering the canon. As with natural history, there are more dead species than living—few ways to be right and many more to be wrong. And like Darwinian evolution, whose random adaptations are submitted to ruthless selection through competition and circumstance, in literature, the public decides what forms live and die. The public cannot buy all it all, cannot read it all, cannot love it all. They must choose. For Moretti, the only inevitability is the tree of possibilities and its pruning—what survives is left to happenstance. No turn-of-century mystery writer knew that Sherlock Holmes would become the standard fictional detective. None knew that Arthur Conan Doyle’s usage of clues would set the norm for decades of writers to come. But alongside this theory, one may propose another. Not a more optimistic theory, but one that is subtler and more alert to the unexpected power of influence.
Comfortable? Good. Take an extra pillow, if you want. Next, put on the device. On your temples, all four contact points. Concentrate and be patient. Pick a point in space. Focus your breathing. Pay attention.
In a quarter hour, you will enter dataspace. No, not your body. Your body will stay in this chair. Your consciousness will move. The computer you are hooked up to will communicate with your consciousness, allowing you to move through databases and networks. Your consciousness encoded and electrified, jumping from neurons to circuits. Soon a synapse in California will flip a bit in Dubai. With little more than concentrated thought, you will be able to access communication satellites and nuclear submarines. Databases will be memory palaces; silicon wafers will expand to neighborhoods. You will experience a landscape of data expanding with every generation of Moore’s Law.
Like many machines, this one has multiple inventors. The first by a few years was the author Vernor Vinge in his 1981 novella True Names. In it, protagonist Roger Pollack leads a double life as a West Coast writer of “participation novels” and an online data thief in the “Other Plane.” Vinge was first to name the inner landscape of computation, and if history had gone another way, perhaps the “Other Plane” would not have become a footnote to cyberpunk history, victim to Moretti’s slaughterhouse. Vinge’s Other Plane, though, is not cyberspace’s blighted semiconductor cityscape. It is countrified, a Medieval pastoral grafted from Tolkien’s prose. In the Other Plane, hackers are visualized as wizards and warlocks; cybercriminals are Robin Hoods; encryption is a spell. Swamps are undergirded by “corporate and government data space,” and characters speak in “beast language” to cipher their communications. Like the Romantics’ Medieval dreamland whose day’s residue was the Industrial Revolution, Vinge’s Other Plane is a pastoral decoy, this time from the information economy. As Vinge writes: “Ultimately, the magic jargon was perhaps the closest fit in the vocabulary of the millennium Man.”
True Name’s millennium Man, Roger Pollack, is also a busy man. When he’s not working on his interactive fiction, he and his Other Plane collaborators, a cell of cosplay hacktivists known as “the Coven,” loot government data accounts and cause general antisocial mayhem. His Other Plane efforts have earned him a stock ticker of government enemies: NSA, IRS, CIA, FBI, to name only some. The Coven members are not sociopaths, per se, just anarchists without much of grand plan. Pollack, a true stay-off-my-lawn libertarian, spends more time worrying about Social Security checks than social justice. And he and his Coven’s narrative exploits would be about as serious as an Atari adaptation of Atlas Shrugged if it weren’t for the novella’s central conceit: the problem of proper names. When on the job, the Coven operates under assumed identities, and if their real names were revealed, their Other Plane powers would be nullified. This might sound like routine spy novel stuff, but True Names crosshatches spook paranoia with an older philosophical worry concerning naming. Nietzsche approximates: “The master’s right of naming goes so far that it is accurate to say that language itself is the power of the masters.”
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Travel out far enough out along the political spectrum, past Black Block agitators, middle management Objectivists, and ex-military survivalists, and you’ll find Timothy C. May: resident of Aptos, California, former physicist for Intel Corporation, and supporter of California’s Libertarian Party. May made a name and a fortune for himself at Intel, conquering a problem with alpha particles that almost sank the then-young semiconductor corporation. Soon thereafter, the bright young May retired at age thirty-four and got back to his true calling: anarchism.
May’s anarchism came from the far right of the far right: in specific, from the followers of libertarian economist, Murray Rothbard. Like his Austrian School mentor, Ludwig von Mises, Rothbard believed a free market is man’s natural state and government regulation primes a nation for fascism. Unsurprisingly, Murray and his peers rejected economists’ statistical methodology for a mistier philosophy of oracular deduction—what Mises called “Praxeology.” Murray coined the term “anarcho-capitalism,” an extreme form of free enterprise that would completely replace the nation-state. In addition to being a marginal academic, Murray was a venomous racist who stood against the Civil Rights Movement and called for the LA rioters to be shot dead. He was also probably the only Jewish intellectual who allied himself with Holocaust denier Harry Elmer Barnes, writing a warm obituary for Barnes that elided the man’s alliance with anti-Semitic groups. Though a co-founder of the Cato Institute and a lifelong activist, Murray managed to fall out with just about every ally, a list that includes Ayn Rand (“a cultist”) and his former patron, David Koch of later Tea-Party fame, with whom he broke over Koch’s failed 1980 Vice-Presidential campaign.
For Tim May, a right-wing geek enjoying early retirement, Murray’s anarcho-capitalism had it all: a justification for astronomical income, a racist ideology that wrote off the global south, and a hatred of taxation that guaranteed concentrated wealth. (The last point being a particular irony considering historical government funding for the tech sector.) And what, for May, was the missing agent in reactionary anarchy? Cryptography. Mimicking his hero Rothbard, May designated his movement “Crypto Anarchy,” and, in 1988, he emailed his manifesto to some like-minded cryptographers. “A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy,” it unimaginatively began. He went on:
“Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions.”
That last phrase is telling. Cryptography would change the nature of government and corporations—this statement is and was uncontroversial—but, for May, the real killer app delivered currency transactions free from taxation and central banking. If May is sounding a little like Vinge’s Roger Pollock, it’s because, after Rothbard, Roger Pollack is May’s nerded-up ego ideal. May read True Names in 1986, and he followed his breezy manifesto with a much longer “True Nyms and Crypto Anarchy,” an essay now published with Vinge’s novella. In the longer work, he takes his cryptographic libertarianism further, showing how cryptography could institute a digital version of Ayn Rand’s “Galt’s Gulch.” May predicted cryptography would provide “the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact in a totally anonymous manner… without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other.” He quotes Niesztche on the master’s right to naming and then briefly takes up a version of Foucauldian biopower-lite. He outlines various strategies for online anonymization, both existing and fictional, including remailers, reputation systems, DigiCash, and, most importantly, “Swiss banks in cyberspace.” It all culminates in a fictional BlackNet, “an exercise in guerilla ontology,” an online marketplace were everything unsafe is safely for sale—free, again, of taxation and regulation.
In his manifesto and essay, May does get some of the basics approximately right. Cryptography is a descent form of protection for some things, and it would change society in the next thirty years. It’s also true that by the end of the century government intelligence agencies would repurpose the Internet into a grand surveillance device. But May, ever the anarcho-capitalist, spends most of his time making victims out of victors (i.e. the over-taxed rich) and seems intent on liberating marketplaces no one really wants to see liberated. He also manages to ignore just about every social group facing actual oppression. (Race? Class? Gender? Obsolete.) And, worst of all, like Rothbard, May is a racist of the first order. (In an interview with journalist Andy Greenberg he states, “Let the Africans kill each other. I don’t have those kinds of political interests.”) To top it off, when it comes to what people outside May’s Randian superset think of cryptographic ideals, May proudly lets rip: “strong cryptography will probably be opposed by the masses, unless, of course, they are wise and take the long view. This may smack of elitism, but I have very little faith in democracy.”
Why bother with May? He is, you might say, just another racist, libertarian from Silicon Valley—wholly ignorable. You would be right, in part, but what is important is not May, but how his cypherpunk mailing list interlocutors used his ideas—the people who took ideas like BlackNet to heart. BlackNet and its sibling Mix Net were predecessors of everything from WikiLeaks and Tor-based marketplaces like Silk Road. The connection is direct: Julian Assange got most of what he knew about the powers of cryptographically secured leaks from the cypherpunks mailing list. At the time, though, DarkNet remained a libertarian fantasy, and amounted to no real code. May’s collaborators were technically competent—mostly libertarian—programmers who would, along with May, get the Deep Web bootstrapped. Tor, however, the closest thing we have to BlackNet, did get started at the US Navy—a fact that probably doesn’t sit well with free-market May.
And then there are the monetary transactions. It was May’s collaborator and fellow libertarian and cypherpunk, David Chaum, who created the first cryptographically verified currency, ecash. The currency and its company, DigiCash, would fail, but the idea would be reborn in 2008 as Bitcoin, a currency whose author fanatically guarded his or her True Name.
Last March, journalist Leah McGrath Goodman, in a 4,500-word cover story for the newly resurrected Newsweek, announced the latest candidate for the possibly pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto. Unlike previous attempts at identifying Nakamoto, the candidate was not a tenured cryptographer or a government spook. He was a 64-year-old Japanese-American man living in Temple City, California, whose birth name is Satoshi Nakamoto and whose current legal name is Dorian Prentice Satoshi Nakamoto.
The facts are few. Dorian Nakamoto was born in July 1949 to a poor family in Beppu, Japan. Like his brothers, he was gifted in mathematics and science. He immigrated to California in 1959 and later graduated from California State Polytechnic University with a degree in physics. At 23, Nakamoto changed his name, and over the next four decades he worked as an engineer for Hughes Aircraft, Radio Corporation of America, Quotron Systems, and the Federal Aviation Administration. Most of this work was classified. Thirteen years ago, after leaving the FAA, Nakamoto could no longer find an engineering job and was forced into marginal employment. Nakamoto separated from his second wife in 2000; between the two marriages he has six children. In addition to being a prostate cancer survivor, he is recovering from a recent stroke. Nakamoto currently lives with his 93-year-old mother and has a lifelong preoccupation with model trains. He does most of his own lathing.
For Goodman, Satoshi Nakamoto was not a pseudonym; he was hiding behind the most slender of aliases: his birth name. Nakamoto’s family, selectively quoted in the article, only helped Goodman’s case. The family, which included at least one engineer, stated he was a brilliant man, highly gifted in mathematics and engineering. They said, without explanation, he engaged in “weird hobbies.” Nakamoto was also very private, going so far as to screen his calls and anonymize his emails. According to his daughter, her father is an extreme libertarian, and in her youth they would play a game that involved hiding from the government. When working at home, his daughter added, he kept his office door locked. His brother Tokuo called him “paranoid” and predicted that Dorian would not tell the truth to Goodman about Bitcoin, whatever the truth might be. (Thus allowing for a logical paradox worthy of Epimenides.) Dorian Nakamoto, apparently, was exactly the kind of man who would launch a well-publicized anti-government global currency and not take credit for it. To the family’s testimony, Goodman added a few coincidental facts. The Bitcoin founder has not cashed out his billion-dollar wallet, and Dorian Nakamoto’s financial problems would suggest that he, too, did not financially benefit from Bitcoin. Most importantly, perhaps, when Goodman confronted Nakamoto about Bitcoin in the presence of two police officers, he responded: “I am no longer involved with that.”
The story went live, and things went bad for both Nakamoto and Goodman. Within a day, the news media squatted Nakamoto’s doorstep. Nakamoto, confronting the crowd, randomly selected an Associated Press journalist and fled with the journalist crosstown. During the sushi lunch and exclusive interview that followed, Nakamoto denied all involvement with Bitcoin. He claimed not to know the lead Bitcoin developer, Gavin Andresen, and mispronounced “Bitcoin” as “Bitcom.” He explained that when he said he was “no longer involved in that,” he was referring to engineering, not Bitcoin. On March 19, Newsweek appended a statement from Nakamoto and his lawyer calling the report “false.” By all appearances, Goodman’s candidate was a tired, poor, and isolated man who would have preferred to be left alone.
Despite a number of impressive coincidences, nothing in the Newsweek article directly linked Bitcoin to Dorian Nakamoto. Yes, her candidate was a gifted engineer, but the article offered no evidence that Nakamoto was an expert in cryptography or was competent in Bitcoin-related computer science issues. Goodman claimed that the estimated time period for creating Bitcoin “falls squarely into Dorian S. Nakamoto’s job lapse starting in 2001,” but she does not include the estimated time period in the article. (Again, find any anonymously authored software project with the same timeline, and, using the same reasoning, Nakamoto could have been the author.) The fact that Nakamoto is poor and the founder has not cashed out his wallet would also make any poor person an eligible candidate for creating Bitcoin. Elsewhere Goodman asks rhetorically: “why [would] someone who wishes to remain anonymous… choose such a distinctive name?” But one could more reasonably ask why someone who wishes to remain anonymous would use his own name. When Dorian Nakamoto’s wife says her husband often mixed British and American spellings, as the Bitcoin founder did in his writings, she relies on Nakamoto’s wife to claim any similarity. Goodman also fails to mention that there are few examples of Dorian Nakamoto’s writings, thus making it impossible to determine if the similarities are statistically significant.
The Bitcoin community, as expected, was furious. They demanded the Bitcoin founder be left alone. They claimed that the importance of their currency had nothing to do with its creator. Some raised money for Dorian Nakamoto, seeing him as the victim of undue media attention. A few demanded that Newsweek produce a Bitcoin wallet belonging to the founder. Trolls took to Twitter, and Goodman was put on the defensive. Even worse, some threatened Goodman’s life. By the week’s end, it appeared that Newsweek had rushed a sensational cover story to press, and Leah Goodman’s sole accomplishment had been finding a computer engineer named Satoshi Nakamoto who also happened to be a paranoid libertarian.
And on the day of Dorian Nakamoto’s interview, Satoshi Nakamoto posted a message to a long-dormant P2P account: “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.”
In his essay, “The Slaughterhouse of Literature,” Franco Moretti traces the history of clues in 1890s detective literature. For Moretti, fictional clues would provide their own historical evidence as to why Sherlock Holmes survived the century while his literary competitors did not. Moretti’s hunch: the competing stories of 1890s Britain misused clues. In the forgotten stories, clues were the subject of divination, or they were incoherent, or they did not exist at all. Even Arthur Conan Doyle, Moretti found, fudged facts: only a small number of stories used clues in a way recognizable to today’s mystery reader. Clues were the adaptive advantage; if a writer could use clues correctly, a story would survive. Follow the clues, Moretti seems to say, and you can read a detective story’s literary future.
One could add that the late 19th-century public was somehow ahead of the writers. The public was becoming acquainted with new forms of police work, perhaps through the press and direct experience. The narrative they wanted was one that mirrored the rationalization of police work—or an idealized version of that work. So, too, did science fiction readers of the 1970s look for a depiction of state power, of crime and punishment, that felt contemporary, if not of the near future. Rockets and space operas were no longer in the futurist’s purview; Vinge, in his own caricatured way, understood this. Information science would be the engine fueling a new political economy. Yes, True Names infected other cyberpunk authors and assisted a new genre, but it also influenced a group of scientists and programmers—cypherpunks—to write texts of their own, texts written in software rather than prose.
Anonymity has come to trouble the second decade of the 21st century. The creators of anonymity software were from the edges of society: its watchdogs, its far right, as well as its far left. Vinge and his right-wing followers saw a “true name” only in terms of private property; their ideas left no room for race, class, or gender. Social trust, the cypherpunks thought, could be replaced by cryptographic truth. The rest, for them, was immaterial. It is unsurprising, then, that cypherpunks claim that their software—Tor, Bitcoin, PGP, etc.—are accessible to any group regardless of politics. In a way, they are right. The software is free, after all. But the leading cypherpunks, especially the first generation, could not address the divide between users, between experts and non-experts, digital haves and have-nots. Libertarian in their politics, as well as sometimes showing open hostility to social justice issues, their software could only have a limited effect across social boundaries. Some on the more recent cypherpunk left—WikiLeak’s Jacob Appelbaum, for instance—have taken to educating groups globally on how to employ technologies like Tor. But without a larger educational project, one along the lines of the 19th-century public education movements, cryptography will provide only another gated community, one whose digital havens protect those already rich enough to afford safety.