Strategy 2: Fake Documents (Anglais seulement)
Marie Lechner, Streaming Egos - Digital Identities, 2016, Goethe Institut-Paris
Last May Satoshi Nakamoto was defined one of the latest “big mysteries of the digital age” by the New York Times. We are talking about the creator of the crypto-money Bitcoin, a revolutionary and decentralised payment system through which anonymous and non-falsifiable online transactions can be made independently from governments and central banks.
What seems quite extraordinary is that, in an era in which the surveillance systems of the NSA and other intelligence agencies could get hold of any information they want, we still do not know exactly who Satoshi Nakamoto is. For this purpose, the artists Emilie Brout & Maxime Marion have tried to create some (real) fake ID documents for him in order to provide some proof of his existence.
Completely out of the blue, in 2008 someone using the name ‘Satoshi Nakamoto’ published a research paper on the mailing list Cryptography, setting out the basic principles of the revolutionary Bitcoin protocol. In 2009 the first version of the Bitcoin software was made available and he created the first units of the currency. Satoshi is well-known for communicating uniquely through e-mails and not over the phone. His last contribution dates back to the end of 2010 ? which was exactly when his new technological invention was starting to attract attention. That was also when he handed the control over to Gavin Andresen, Bitcoin’s chief scientist. It seems that Satoshi Nakamoto, who is described by his peers as a genius, disappeared from public view just as suddenly as he had attracted attention to him.
Despite the regular media announcements claiming the identity/ies hiding behind the pseudonym has/have been discovered, all the potential people have denied being behind it with statements such as “I am not Satoshi Nakamoto … but even if I were I wouldn’t tell you”.
A name which is often quoted is that of computer specialist Nick Szabo, an ex-cypherpunk (a group whose aim was ensuring the protection of private life through the use of cryptography), who developed a decentralised digital currency called Bit Gold ? which in a way was a direct forerunner of Bitcoin. Before him, Satoshi « Dorian » Nakamoto, a 65 year-old Japanese-American based in California made the front page of the magazine Newsweek on 6th March 2014 when he was presented as “the face of Bitcoin”. Because of his name, his life became a nightmare due to all the media attention. In order to support his “revelations”, the Newsweek journalist brought up his past as a systems engineer working for top secret defence projects, together with some statements by people close to him describing him as a humble genius obsessed with private life. It must be said that, if that were true, it would be legitimate to wonder why he chose to use his real family name.
Fascinated by this modern myth, the artists Emilie Brout & Maxime Marion attempted last year to create some (real) fake ID documents for him by using darknet, i.e. networks ensuring anonymity and the hideout of all sorts of activities (whether legal or not).
That was the beginning of a long investigation online to try to gather all the necessary elements in order to create a fake Japanese passport. Indeed, Satoshi states he is Japanese on the forum of the P2P foundation. “Research on web.archive.org and the reddit.com Bitcoin forum confirms that the date of birth given by Nakamoto himself is 5th April 1975”, state the investigators. They chose to make the passport issue date coincide with the registration date of the bitcoin.org website by Nakamoto in Panama on 18th August 2008.
“From his first public message and up to his disappearance on 12th December 2010, Nakamoto did all he could to protect his identity”, wrote the artists while listing the strategies he used to cover his traces. Neither the analysis of his code (which seems that of brilliant mathematician good at cryptography and a skilled but not professional programmer) nor his writing style have led to a conclusion ? therefore giving rise to all sorts of more or less supported speculations and conspiracy theories. As he has always used different IP addresses, identifying his exact location has been difficult. Others have paid attention to when he sends and replies to emails, but he writes at different times and therefore cannot easily be linked to a time zone. Some people have even tried to analyse his writing in order to determine his nationality. However, although his favourite language seems to be English, he switches between British and American spelling and colloquial expressions. This could either mean that Satoshi tries to hide his nationality or that he is in fact more than one person or even a whole organisation.
As ID photo, Emilie Brout and Maxime Marion chose the portrait which is usually used to represent him on the Internet and in the media. “In reality, this image comes from the video Seven Billion: Are you typical?, produced by the National Geographic in 2011, which presents a synthesis of the average human face, the face of M. Everybody”, explain the artists, who had to touch up the low definition photo to make it credible. “We tried to reconstruct an identity on the basis of the information we were able to gather and to produce proof of Satoshi Nakamoto’s existence by means of the technology he created …”. .
Once this biographical information had been gathered, Emilie Brout and Maxime Marion started navigating with TOR ? the anonymity network ? to get in touch with forgers, covering their traces via a secure email service and a VPN (virtual private network). After searching for several weeks, they reached a deal with a group probably based in Cambodia that could produce high-quality Japanese passports. Of course, they paid for this in bitcoins, the popular currency for online anonymous transactions.
After obtaining a scan of the passport for validation (photo), the artists paid a second down payment and the passport was sent on 7th June 2014 (placed inside a book according to the counterfeiters’ version), but never reached its destination. According to the latest news, the “goods” are stuck in Romania. There is no way of checking.
The scan is to this day the only existing trace of this passport ? ultimately, it is a digital file which is just as intangible as its owner. “We did not manage to make him real, which means Satoshi Nakamoto remains in a grey area, between reality and fiction, thereby increasing the rumours and fantasies surrounding his character”, says Emilie Brout. Even if the artists didn’t manage to capture him in an artefact, their project Satoshi Nakamoto (The Proof) encourages us to delve into the troubled waters of contemporary economies and the darknet ? a place with a strong fictional element to it. At the same time, through this project we can pay tribute to a contemporary myth who redefined value while also enabling Bitcoin to develop as a real open source project, regardless of the true identity of its creator.
The project also has a second more psychedelic side to it, called Satoshi Nakamoto (The Myth). The artists produced an animation using one of the 3D face models that is most widespread on the net. Then they placed Satoshi Nakamoto’s appearance over it. What we see is a mask that doesn’t look at us but constantly divides into two and changes. A Janus with multiple faces ? a monstrous enigma that is not ready to reveal its secrets.