Andrew O’Hagan | The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | October 2017 | 24 minutes (6,575 words)
Ten men raided a house in Gordon, a north shore suburb of Sydney, at 1:30 p.m. on Wednesday, December 9, 2015. Some of the federal agents wore shirts that said “Computer Forensics”; one carried a search warrant issued under the Australian Crimes Act 1914. They were looking for a man named Craig Steven Wright, who lived with his wife, Ramona, at 43 St. Johns Avenue. The warrant was issued at the behest of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO). Wright, a computer scientist and businessman, headed a group of companies associated with cryptocurrency and online security. Wright and his wife were gone but the agents entered the house by force. As one set of agents scoured his kitchen cupboards and emptied out his garage, another entered his main company headquarters at 32 Delhi Road in North Ryde, another suburb of Sydney. They were looking for “originals or copies” of material held on hard drives and computers; they wanted bank statements, mobile-phone records, research papers, and photographs. The warrant listed dozens of companies whose papers were to be scrutinized, and thirty-two individuals, some with alternative names, or alternative spellings. The name Satoshi Nakamoto appeared sixth from the bottom of the list.
Some of the Wrights’ neighbors at St. Johns Avenue say they were a little distant. She was friendly but he was weird — to one neighbor he was “Cold-Shoulder Craig” — and their landlord wondered why they needed so much extra power: Wright had what appeared to be a whole room full of generators at the back of the property. This fed a rack of computers that he called his “toys,” but the real computer, on which he’d spent a lot of money, was nearly nine thousand miles away in Panama. He had already taken the computers away the day before the raid. A reporter had turned up at the house and Wright, alarmed, had phoned Stefan, the man advising them on what he and Ramona were calling “the deal.” Stefan immediately moved Wright and his wife into a luxury apartment at the Meriton World Tower in Sydney. They’d soon be moving to England anyway, and all parties agreed it was best to hide out for now.
At 32 Delhi Road, the palm trees were throwing summer shade onto the concrete walkways — “Tailor Made Office Solutions,” it said on a nearby billboard — and people were drinking coffee in Deli 32 on the ground floor. Wright’s office on level five was painted red, and looked down on the Macquarie Park Cemetery, known as a place of calm for the living as much as for the dead. No one was sure what to do when the police entered. The staff were gathered in the middle of the room and told by the officers not to go near their computers or use their phones. “I tried to intervene,” one senior staff member, a Dane called Allan Pedersen, remarked later, “and said we would have to call our lawyers.”
Holed up in the Meriton World Tower, Ramona wasn’t keen to tell her family what was happening. The reporters were sniffing at a strange story — a story too complicated for her to explain — so she just told everyone that damp in the Gordon house had forced them to move out. The place they moved into, a tall apartment building, was right in the city and Wright felt as if he was on holiday. On December 9, after their first night in the new apartment, he woke up to the news that two articles, one on the technology site Gizmodo, the other in the tech magazine Wired, had come out overnight fingering him as the person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, who in 2008 published a white paper describing a “peer-to-peer electronic cash system” — a technology Satoshi went on to develop as bitcoin. Reading the articles on his laptop, Wright knew his old life was over.
By this point, cameras and reporters were outside his former home and his office. They had long heard rumors, but the Gizmodo and Wired stories had sent the Australian media into a frenzy. It wasn’t clear why the police and the articles had appeared on the same day. At about five that same afternoon, a receptionist called from the lobby of Wright’s apartment building to say that the police had arrived. Ramona turned to Wright and told him to get the hell out. He looked at a desk in front of the window: there were two large laptop computers on it — they weighed a few kilos each, with 64 gigabytes of RAM — and he grabbed the one that wasn’t yet fully encrypted. He also took Ramona’s phone, which wasn’t encrypted either, and headed for the door. They were on the sixty-third floor. It occurred to him that the police might be coming up in the elevator, so he went down to the sixty-first floor, where there were office suites and a swimming pool. He stood frozen for a minute before he realized he’d rushed out without his passport.
Ramona left the apartment shortly after Wright. She went straight down to the basement car park and was relieved to find the police weren’t guarding the exits. She jumped into her car, a hire vehicle, and, in her panic, crashed into the exit barrier. But she didn’t stop, and was soon on the freeway heading to north Sydney. She just wanted to be somewhere familiar where she would have time to think. She felt vulnerable without her phone, and decided to drive to a friend’s and borrow his. She went to his workplace and took his phone, telling him she couldn’t explain because she didn’t want to get him involved.
Meanwhile, Wright was still standing beside the swimming pool in his suit, with a laptop in his arms. He heard people coming up the stairs, sped down the corridor, and ducked into the gents’. A bunch of teenagers were standing around but seemed not to notice him. He went to the farthest cubicle and deliberately kept the door unlocked. (He figured the police would just look for an engaged sign.) He was standing on top of the toilet when he heard the officers come in. They asked the youngsters what they were doing, but they said “nothing” and the police left. Wright stayed in the cubicle for a few minutes, then went out and used his apartment keycard to hide in the service stairwell. Eventually, a call came from Ramona on her friend’s phone. She was slightly horrified to discover he was still in the building and told him again to get out. He, too, had a rental car, and had the key in his pocket. He went down sixty flights of stairs to the parking lot in the basement, unlocked his car, and opened the trunk, where he lifted out the spare wheel and put his laptop in the wheel cavity. He drove toward the Harbour Bridge and got lost in the traffic.
As Ramona drove along she began texting the mysterious Stefan, who was at Sydney Airport, having already checked in for a flight to Manila, where he lived. Stefan had to make a fuss to get his bag removed from the plane. He then headed back into Sydney and he spoke en route to Ramona, telling her that Wright would have to get out of the country. She didn’t argue. She called the Flight Centre and asked what flights were leaving. “To where?” asked the saleswoman.
“Anywhere,” Ramona said. Within ten minutes she had booked her husband on a flight to Auckland.
In the early evening, Wright, scared and lost, made his way to the shopping district of Chatswood, an area he knew well and in which he felt comfortable. He texted Ramona to come and meet him, and she immediately texted back saying he should go straight to the airport; she’d booked him a flight. “But I don’t have my passport,” he said. Ramona was afraid she’d be arrested if she returned to their apartment, but her friend said he’d go into the building and get the passport. They waited until the police left the building, then he went upstairs. A few minutes later he came back with the passport, along with the other computer and a power supply.
They met Wright in the airport parking lot. Ramona had never seen him so worried. “I was shocked,” he later said. “I hadn’t expected to be outed like that in the media, and then to be chased down by the police. Normally, I’d be prepared. I’d have a bag packed.” As Ramona gave him the one-way ticket to Auckland, she was anxious about when she would see him again. Wright said New Zealand was a bit too close and wondered what to do about money. Ramona went to an ATM and gave him six hundred dollars. He bought a yellow bag from the airport shop in which to store his computers. He had no clothes. “It was awful saying goodbye to him,” Ramona said.
In the queue for security, he felt nervous about his computers. His flight was about to close when the security staff flagged him down. He was being taken to an interview room when an Indian man behind him started going berserk. It was just after the Paris bombings; the man’s wife was wearing a sari and the security staff wanted to pat her down. The man objected. All the security staff ran over to deal with the situation and Wright was told to go. He couldn’t believe his luck. He put his head down and scurried through the lounge.
Back at Wright’s office, Allan Pedersen was being interviewed by the police. He overheard one of them ask: “Have we got Wright yet?”
“He’s just hopped a flight to New Zealand,” his colleague said. Wright was soon 30,000 feet above the Tasman Sea watching the programmer Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) being chased by unknowable agents in The Matrix. Wright found the story line strangely comforting; it was good to know he wasn’t alone.
At Auckland Airport, Wright kept his phone on flight mode but turned it on to Skype with Stefan using the airport’s Wi-Fi and a new account. They had a discussion about how to get him to Manila. There was a big rock concert that night in Auckland, and all the hotels were full, but he crossed town in a cab and managed to get a small room at the Hilton. He booked two nights, using cash. He knew how to get more cash out of ATMs than the daily limit, so he worked several machines near the hotel, withdrawing five thousand dollars. He ordered room service that night and the next morning went to the Billabong store in Queen Street to buy some clothes. He felt agitated, out of his element: normally he would wear a suit and tie — he enjoys the notion that he is too well-dressed to be a geek — but he bought a T-shirt, a pair of jeans, and some socks. On the way back to the hotel he got a bunch of SIM cards, so that his calls wouldn’t be monitored. Back at the Hilton he was packing up his computers when the dependable Stefan came on Skype. He told Wright to go to the airport and pick up a ticket he’d left him for a flight to Manila. His picture was all over the papers, along with the story that he was trying to escape.
Within hours of Wright’s name appearing in the press, anonymous messages threatened to reveal his “actual history.” Some said he had been on Ashley Madison, the website that sets up extramarital affairs, others that he’d been seen on Grindr, the gay hookup app. During a six-hour layover in Hong Kong, he killed his email accounts and tried to wipe his social media profile, which he knew would be heavy with information he wasn’t keen to publicize: “Mainly rants,” he said later. When he got to Manila airport, Stefan picked him up. They went to Stefan’s apartment and the maid washed Wright’s clothes while he set up his laptops on the dining room table. They spent the rest of Saturday wiping his remaining social media profile. Stefan didn’t want any contact to be possible: he wanted to cut Wright off from the world. The next day he put him on a plane to London.
Technology is constantly changing the lives of people who don’t really understand it — we drive our cars, and care nothing for internal combustion — but now and then a story will break that captures the imagination of the general public. I was one of the people who had never heard of Satoshi Nakamoto or the blockchain — the invention underlying bitcoin, which verifies transactions without the need for any central authority — or that it is the biggest thing in computer science. It was news to me that the banks were grabbing on to the blockchain as the foundation of a future “internet of value.” If it hadn’t been for my involvement with Assange, the story of this mythical computer scientist might never have come my way. I’m not much detained by thoughts of new computer paradigms. (I’m still getting the hang of the first one.) But to those who are much more invested in the world of tomorrow, the Satoshi story has the lineaments of a modern morality tale quite independent of stock realities. There are things, there are always things, that others assume are at the center of the universe but don’t make a scratch on your own sense of the everyday world. This story was like that for me, enclosing me in an enigma I couldn’t have named. A long-form report is a fashioned thing, of course, as fashioned as fiction in its own ways, but I had to overcome my own bafflement — as will you — to enter this world.
A few weeks before the raid on Craig Wright’s house, when his name still hadn’t ever been publicly associated with Satoshi Nakamoto, I got an email from a Los Angeles lawyer called Jimmy Nguyen, from the firm Davis Wright Tremaine (self-described as “a one-stop shop for companies in entertainment, technology, advertising, sports and other industries”). Nguyen told me that they were looking to contract me to write the life of Satoshi Nakamoto. “My client has acquired life story rights … from the true person behind the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto — the creator of the bitcoin protocol,” the lawyer wrote. “The story will be [of ] great interest to the public and we expect the book project will generate significant publicity and media coverage once Satoshi’s true identity is revealed.”
Journalists, it turned out, had spent years looking for Nakamoto. His identity was one of the great mysteries of the internet, and a holy grail of investigative reporting, with writers who couldn’t dig up evidence simply growing their own. For The New Yorker’s Joshua Davis the need to find him seemed almost painful. “Nakamoto himself was a cipher,” he wrote in October 2011:
Before the debut of bitcoin, there was no record of any coder with that name. He used an email address and a Web site that were untraceable. In 2009 and 2010, he wrote hundreds of posts in flawless English, and though he invited other software developers to help him improve the code, and corresponded with them, he never revealed a personal detail. Then, in April, 2011, he sent a note to a developer saying that he had “moved on to other things.” He has not been heard from since.
Davis went on to examine Satoshi’s writing quite closely and concluded that he used British spelling and was fond of the word “bloody.” He then named a twenty-three-year-old Trinity College Dublin graduate student, Michael Clear, who quickly denied it. The story went nowhere and Clear went back to his studies. Then Leah McGrath Goodman wrote a piece for Newsweek claiming Satoshi was a math genius called Dorian Nakamoto, who lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Temple City and didn’t actually know, it turned out, how to pronounce “bitcoin.” When Goodman’s article ran on the magazine’s cover, reporters from all over the world arrived on Dorian’s doorstep. He said he would give an interview to the first person who would take him to lunch. It turned out that his hobby wasn’t alternative currencies but model trains. Someone calling himself Satoshi Nakamoto, and using Satoshi’s original email address, visited one of the forums Satoshi used to haunt and posted the message “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.” Other commentators, including Nathaniel Popper of The New York Times, named Nick Szabo, a cool cryptocurrency nut and the inventor of digital money called Bit Gold, but he denied it profusely. Forbes believed it was Hal Finney, who, the blockchain irrefutably showed, was the first person in the world to be sent bitcoins by Satoshi. Finney, a native Californian, was an expert cryptographer whose involvement in the development of bitcoin was vital. He was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2009 and died in 2014. It came to seem that the holy grail would remain out of reach. “Many in the bitcoin community … in deference to the bitcoin creator’s clear desire for privacy … didn’t want to see the wizard unmasked,” Popper wrote in The New York Times. “But even among those who said this, few could resist debating the clues the founder left behind.”
As with every story I’ve ever worked on, I checked the background and made a number of calls before I got back to the lawyers representing the mysterious client. The client’s idea, I then discovered from the lawyers, was that I would have full access to their man, Satoshi, to write a book and have it published as I saw fit. I listened carefully and I took some advice; I wanted to be careful. I had to find out exactly what these clients were looking for and why they’d come to me. This information came slowly, and I let the deal remain vague, I signed nothing, while I worked out who they were. The “Stefan” who was hovering during the raid on Craig Wright’s house and office is Stefan Matthews, an Australian IT expert whom Wright had known for ten years, since they both worked for the online gambling site Centrebet. In those days, around 2007, Wright was often hired as a security analyst by such firms, deploying his skills as a computer scientist (and his experience as a hacker) to make life difficult for fraudsters. Wright was an eccentric guy, Stefan Matthews remembered, but known to be a reliable freelancer. Matthews told me that Wright had given him a document to look at in 2008 written by someone called Satoshi Nakamoto, but Matthews had been busy at the time and didn’t read it for a while. He said that Wright was always trying to get him interested in this new venture called bitcoin. He tried to sell him 50,000 bitcoins for next to nothing, but Matthews wasn’t interested, he told me, because Wright was weird and the whole thing seemed a bit cranky. A few years later, however, Matthews realized that the document he had been shown was, in fact, an original draft of the now famous white paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. (Like the governments they despise, bitcoiners deal — when it comes to ideas — in “white papers,” as if they are issuing laws.)
In 2015, when Wright was in financial trouble — his companies were facing bankruptcy and he was at the end of his wits — he approached Matthews several times. By then, Matthews had become friendly with Robert MacGregor, the founder and CEO of a Canada-based money-transfer firm called nTrust. Matthews encouraged MacGregor to come to Australia and assess Wright’s value as an investment opportunity. Wright had founded a number of businesses that were failing and he was deeply embedded in a dispute with the ATO. Nevertheless, Matthews told MacGregor, Wright was almost certainly the man behind bitcoin.
Matthews argued that since Satoshi’s disappearance in 2011, Wright had been working on new applications of the blockchain technology he had invented as Satoshi. He was, in other words, using the technology underlying bitcoin to create new versions of the formula that could, at a stroke, replace the systems of bookkeeping and registration and centralized authority that banks and governments depend on. Wright and his people were preparing dozens of patents, and each invention, in a specific way, looked to rework financial, social, legal, or medical services, expanding on the basic idea of the “distributed public ledger” that constitutes the blockchain. The math behind the technology can be mind-boggling, but bitcoin is a form of digital money where the flow and the integrity of the currency are guaranteed by its appearance on a shared public ledger, updated and refreshed with every single transaction, a “public history” that cannot be corrupted by any single entity. It works by consensus, and is secured by a series of private and public encryption keys. It is like a Google document that can be used and updated by anyone linked into the “chain.” The blockchain can do many things, but the revolutionary aspect is that it takes authoritarianism and sharp practice out of the banking system, embedding all power over the currency within the self-cleansing software itself and the people who use it. Blockchain technology is a hot topic in computer science and banking at the moment, and hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in such ideas. Thus: Matthews’s proposal.
MacGregor came out to Australia in May 2015. After initial skepticism, and in spite of a slight aversion to Wright’s manner, he was persuaded, and struck a deal with Wright, signed on June 29, 2015. MacGregor says he felt sure that Wright was bitcoin’s legendary missing father, and he told me it was his idea, later in the drafting of the deal, to insist that Satoshi’s “life rights” be included as part of the agreement. Wright’s companies were so deep in debt that the deal appeared to him like a rescue plan, so he agreed to everything, without, it seems, really examining what he would have to do. Within a few months, according to evidence later given to me by Matthews and MacGregor, the deal would cost MacGregor’s company $15 million. “That’s right,” Matthews said to me in February 2016. “When we signed the deal, 1.5 million dollars was given to Wright’s lawyers. But my main job was to set up an engagement with the new lawyers … and transfer Wright’s intellectual property to nCrypt” — a newly formed subsidiary of nTrust. “The deal had the following components: clear the outstanding debts that were preventing Wright’s business from getting back on its feet, and work with the new lawyers on getting the agreements in place for the transfer of any noncorporate intellectual property, and work with the lawyers to get Craig’s story rights.” From that point on, the “Satoshi revelation” would be part of the deal. “It was the cornerstone of the commercialization plan,” Matthews said, “with about ten million sunk into the Australian debts and setting up in London.”
The plan was always clear to the men behind nCrypt. They would bring Wright to London and set up a research and development center for him, with around thirty staff working under him. They would complete the work on his inventions and patent applications — he appeared to have hundreds of them — and the whole lot would be sold as the work of Satoshi Nakamoto, who would be unmasked as part of the project. Once packaged, Matthews and MacGregor planned to sell the intellectual property for upward of a billion dollars. MacGregor later told me he was speaking to Google and Uber, as well as to a number of Swiss banks. “The plan was to package it all up and sell it,” Matthews told me. “The plan was never to operate it.”
Since the time I worked with Julian Assange, my computers have been hacked several times. It isn’t unusual for me to find that material has been wiped — at one point 30,000 emails — and I was careful to make sure the Los Angeles lawyers’ approach wasn’t part of a sting operation. Not long after their initial approach, the lawyers had mentioned that the company behind the deal was called nTrust. I did some research and the lawyers then confirmed that the “client” referred to in the initial email was Robert MacGregor. I was soon in correspondence with MacGregor himself. On Thursday, November 12, I turned up, by appointment, at his office near Oxford Circus, where I signed in under a pseudonym and made my way to a boardroom wallpapered with mathematical formulae. MacGregor came into the room wearing a tailored jacket and jeans, with a blue-edged pocket square in his breast pocket, a scarf, and brown brogue boots. He was forty-seven but looked about twenty-nine. There was something studied about him — the Alexander McQueen scarf, the lawyerly punctilio — and I’d never met anyone who spoke so easily about such large sums of money. When I asked him the point of the whole exercise, he said it was simple: “Buy in, sell out, make some zeroes.”
MacGregor described Wright to me as “the goose that lays the golden egg.” He said that if I agreed to take part I would have exclusive access to the whole story, and to everyone around Wright, and that it would all end with Wright proving he was Satoshi by using cryptographic keys that only Satoshi had access to, those associated with the very first blocks in the blockchain. MacGregor told me this might happen at a public TED talk. He said it would be “game over.” Wright’s patents would then be sold and Wright could get on with his life, out of the public eye. “All he wants is peace to get on with his work,” MacGregor told me at that first meeting. “And how this ends, for me, is with Craig working for, say, Google, with a research staff of four hundred.”
I told MacGregor that there would have to be a process of verification. We talked about money, and negotiated a little, but after several meetings I decided I wouldn’t accept any. I would write the story as I had every other story under my name, by observing and interviewing, taking notes and making recordings, and sifting the evidence. “It should be warts and all,” MacGregor said. He said it several times, but I was never sure he understood what it meant. This was a changing story, and I was the only one keeping account of the changes. MacGregor and his coworkers were already convinced Wright was Satoshi, and they behaved, to my mind, as if that claim was the end of the story, rather than the beginning.
I don’t mean to imply anything sinister. The company was excited by the project and so was I. Very quickly we were working hand in hand: I reserved judgment (and independence) but I was caught up in the thought of the story unfolding as planned. At this point, nobody knew who Craig Wright was, but he appeared, from the initial evidence, to have a better claim to being Satoshi Nakamoto than anyone else had. He seemed to have the technical ability. He also had the right social history, and the timeline worked. The big proof was up ahead, and how could it not be spectacular? I went slowly forward with the project, and said no to everything that would hamper my independence. This would become an issue later on with MacGregor and Matthews, or the men in black, as I’d taken to calling them, but for those first few months, nobody asked me to sign anything and nobody refused me access. Mysteries would open up, and some would remain, but there seemed no mystery about the fact that these people were confident that a supremely important thing was happening and that the entire process should be witnessed and recorded. My emails to MacGregor took it for granted that what would be good for my story, in terms of securing proof, would also be good for his deal, and that seemed perfectly true. Yet I feel bad that I didn’t warn him of the possibility that this might not be what happened, that my story wouldn’t die if the deal died, that human interest doesn’t stop at success.
It was at this point, four weeks after my first meeting with MacGregor, that Wired and Gizmodo reported that Wright might be Satoshi. The news unleashed a tsunami of responses from the cryptocurrency community, and most of it was bad for Wright’s credibility. Had he left artificial footprints to suggest his involvement with bitcoin had been earlier than it was? Had he exaggerated the number and nature of the degrees he’d accumulated from various universities? Why did the company that supplied the supercomputer he claimed to have bought with amassed bitcoin say it had never heard of him?
“The smell,” as one commentator said, “was a mile high.” The nCrypt people were unfazed by this mudslinging, believing that every one of the charges made against Wright could be easily disproved. Wright produced an impressive paper — for internal use only — showing that his “footprint” wasn’t faked and that the “cryptographic” evidence against him was bogus (people continue to argue on this point). The accusation of fraud didn’t seem to bother the nCrypt people. I was a bit confused by the mudslinging, but I kept listening. Wright produced a letter from the supercomputer supplier acknowledging the order. Charles Sturt University provided a photocopy of his staff card, proving he had lectured there, and Wright sent me a copy of the thesis he’d submitted for a doctorate his critics claim he doesn’t have.
I had arrived five minutes early at 28º–50º, a wine bar and restaurant in Mayfair. It was just before 1 p.m. on December 16 and the lunchtime crowd, men in blue suits and white shirts, were eating oysters and baby back ribs and drinking high-end wine by the glass. A jeroboam of Graham’s ten-year-old tawny port stood on the bar, and I was inspecting it when MacGregor arrived with Mr. and Mrs. Smith. That’s what he’d been calling them in his emails to me. Craig Wright, forty-five years old, wearing a white shirt under a black jacket, a pair of blue chinos, a belt with a large Armani buckle, and very green socks, wasn’t the kind of guy who seems comfortable in a swish restaurant. He sat across from me and lowered his head and at first he let MacGregor do the talking. Ramona was very friendly, chatting about their time in London as if they were a couple of holidaymakers who’d just blown into Mayfair. She wasn’t drinking, but the rest of us ordered a glass of Malbec each. When Wright lifted his head to laugh at something, I noticed he had a nice smile but uneven teeth, and a scar that climbed from the top of his nose to the area just above his left eyebrow. He hadn’t shaved for a week, since he’d left Sydney.
Wright told me he was rubbish at small talk. He, too, wanted what I wrote to be “warts and all”; he felt he was being misunderstood by everybody, and normally that wouldn’t bother him but he had to consider the respectability of his work, and his family’s rights. He appeared to ponder this for a moment, then he told me his old neighbors at the house in Gordon hadn’t been friendly.
“They barely even knew your name,” Ramona said. “They do now,” he replied.
I found him easier to talk to than I’d expected. He said his father had worked for the NSA (he could provide no further information), but that, to this day, his mother thinks he worked for NASA. “The few people I care about I care about a lot,” he said, “and I care about the state of the world. But there’s not much in between.” He said he was happy I was writing about him because he wanted “to step into history,” but mainly because he wanted to tell the story of the brilliant people he had collaborated with. He and Ramona were both jet-lagged and anxious about things back home. “We should have been having our company’s Christmas party today,” Ramona said.
MacGregor asked Wright if being a libertarian had influenced his work, or if the work had turned him into a libertarian. “I was always libertarian,” he replied, and then he told me his father had more or less kidnapped him after his parents got divorced. He hated being told what to do — that was one of his main motivations. He believed in freedom, and in what freedom would come to mean, and he said his work would guarantee a future in which privacy was protected. “Where we are,” he said, “is a place where people can be private and part of that privacy is to be someone other than who they were. Computing will allow you to start again, if you want to. And that is freedom.” In fact he never stopped imagining different lives for himself. That afternoon he seemed preoccupied by the case people were making against his being Satoshi. He shook his head a lot and said he wished he could just get on in silence with his work. “If you want to stay sane through this, ignore Reddit,” his wife told him.
The next day, December 17, we met again, in a private room in Claridge’s. You could see outside, over the rooftops, cranes garlanded in fairy lights. Ramona came in looking tired and totally fed up. From time to time, especially when exhausted, she would resent the hold these people had over them. “We have sold our souls,” she said to me in a quiet moment.
MacGregor said he would spend the evening preparing paperwork to be signed by Wright the following day. This would effectively be the final signing over to nCrypt of the intellectual property held by Wright’s companies. This was the main plank in the deal. MacGregor was confident the work was “world historical,” that it would change the way we lived. He regularly described the blockchain as the greatest invention since the internet. He said that what the internet had done for communication, the blockchain would do for value.
MacGregor explained that Wright’s Australian companies were being signed over to nCrypt and that he’d extended an “olive branch” to the ATO, which had responded quickly and positively. A lot of trouble with the ATO had to do with whether bitcoin was a commodity or a currency and how it should be taxed. It also had doubts about whether Wright’s companies had done as much research and development as they claimed, and whether they were therefore entitled to the tax rebates they had applied for. The ATO had said it couldn’t see where the spending was going. Some critics in the media claimed Wright’s companies had been set up only for the purpose of claiming rebates, though not even the ATO went that far.
Wright told me that thanks to the tax office they’d had to lay out all the research for their patents, which had been useful since the nCrypt team was in a hurry: the banks, now alert to crypto-currencies and the effectiveness of the blockchain, are rushing to create their own versions. At that moment, Bank of America was patenting ten ideas for which Craig and his team told me they had a claim to “prior art.” Governments spent a long time denying the value of bitcoin — seeing it as unstable, or the currency of criminals — but now they were celebrating the potential of the technology behind it.
“They’re behaving like children,” Wright said of the ATO.
MacGregor looked at his watch. He straightened his cuffs. “I see this as a pivotal moment in history … It’s like being able to go back in time and watch Bill Gates in the garage.” He turned to Wright. “You released this thing into the wild. Some people got it right and some people got it wrong. But you’ve got a vision of where it’s going next and next and next.”
“None of this would have worked without bitcoin,” Wright said, “but it’s a wheel and I want to build a car.”
Ramona looked depressed. She was worried that her husband, as the person claiming to have invented bitcoin, might be held liable for the actions of those who’d used the currency for nefarious purposes. “He didn’t issue a currency,” MacGregor assured her. “This is just technology — it is not money.” Ramona was still anxious. “We’re talking about legal risk … I’m giving you the legal answer,” MacGregor said. “I would stake my career on the fact that the creation of bitcoin is not a prosecutable event.”
Right to the end, the Wrights would express worries about things Craig did as a young computer forensics worker. Much of his professional past looked questionable, but in the meeting room at Claridge’s he simply batted the past away. “It’s what you’re doing now that matters. I’m not perfect. I never will be … All these different people arguing about what Satoshi should be at the moment, it’s crazy.”
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Excerpted from The Secret Life: Three True Stories of The Digital Age by Andrew O’Hagan, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © 2017 by Andrew O’Hagan.