The two most important moments in the history of Bitcoin are its creation, and the founding of illicit goods and services site Silk Road, which created the first ever market for the digital currency.
Now, two Israeli mathematicians, Dorit Ron and Adi Shamir of the Weizzman Institute south of Tel Aviv, write in a new paper (first reported on by John Markoff at Bits) that they’ve found a “very surprising connection” between the individual or individuals behind the first and the individual allegedly behind the second.
In October, the FBI arrested San Francisco resident Ross Ulbricht, accusing him of being Dread Pirate Roberts, the hacker handle of the guy who ran Silk Road. They seized his laptop, shuttered Silk Road, and after considerable effort — 25 days — they took control of all 144,336 of Ulbricht’s Bitcoins, which would now be worth more than $115 million, and transferred them into FBI-controlled accounts.
Upon doing so, the agency gave anyone a way to trace the history of Ulbricht’s Bitcoin wealth. Although both parties in a Bitcoin transaction are anonymous, the details of all transactions — the address of the buyer and seller, the quantity, and the date — are publicly known, chronicled in a master ledger now overseen by BlockChain.info. So if you can match a given amount with a given personality, it’s possible to excavate the entirety of that person’s Bitcoin banking records. Given the quantities seized, it was immediately obvious which Bitcoins had belonged to Ulbricht, though the FBI publicly released the address of the seized funds account anyway.
Out of curiosity, Ron and Shamir traced the history of every transaction executed by addresses connected to the Bitcoins seized by the FBI. Eventually they made a surprising discovery: on March 20 of this year, an Ulbricht-controlled account received 1,000 Bitcoins from an account created on Jan. 16, 2009 — just one week after the first-ever Bitcoins were mined. That account accumulated over 77,600 BTCs, mostly through mining, until 2011, when it began shooting off its balance into separate accounts, as illustrated here.
Such a transaction is unusual, they explain:
“Such a single large transfer does not represent the typical behaviour of a buyer who opens an account on Silk Road in order to purchase some narcotics (such buyers are expected to make an initial deposit of tens or hundreds of dollars, and to top the account off whenever they buy additional merchandise). It could represent either large scale activity on Silk Road, or some form of investment or partnership, but this is pure speculation.
Instead, it may be evidence of something more profound:
“The short path we found (which is depicted in Figure 6) suggests (but does not prove) the existence of a surprising link between the two mysterious figures of the Bitcoin community, Satoshi Nakamoto and DPR. It is reasonable to assume that all the accounts described along the top of Figure 6 belong to the same person, but to be on the safe side we refer to him as a “Founder” rather than as Satoshi Nakamoto. We are sure that analyzing this figure will start a very vigorous debate in the Bitcoin community.”
Bitcoin aficionados themselves like to play down the importance of knowing the identity of Satoshi, heralding him/her/them as more of a benevolent specter who created a universe and whose true identity is immaterial to that world’s success.
But given that Bitcoins are now worth $800 and rising — and assuming that Satoshi owns or owned a lot of them (some suggest he has 1 million), many still wonder whether a secret multi-millionaire now stalks the land.
Meanwhile, for the latest in everything we know about Satoshi Nakamoto, check out this chart from Chartgirl.com.