Satoshi Files: Michael Clear
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Satoshi Files: Michael Clear

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Michael Clear was an Irish computer science and cryptography graduate from Trinity College in Dublin.

Satoshi Files: Michael Clear

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When he was first contacted by journalist Joshua Davis of The New Yorker, Michael Clear was a young graduate student at Trinity College, Dublin. He studied computer science and cryptography, and he was named the university’s top computer-science undergraduate in 2008, the same year Satoshi Nakamoto developed Bitcoin.

Source: ResearchGate

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Satoshi Nakamoto

What do we know about Satoshi? “He’s a world-class programmer, with a deep understanding of the C++ programming language,” says Dan Kaminsky, a leading internet security researcher. “He understands economics, cryptography, and peer-to-peer networking.” Kaminsky, however, isn’t sure whether Satoshi is just one man. “Either there’s a team of people who worked on this, or this guy is a genius,” he said.

But, why is Satoshi hiding? We can only guess, of course, but one apparent reason is that he’s worried the US government would prosecute him if they ever found him. It wouldn’t be the first time the American government slapped irons on someone who created a currency that challenged the US dollar.

Source: Coin World

Take the Liberty dollar, for instance, which was created by Bernard von NotHaus in the mid-1990s. Liberty dollars were minted as metal rounds (like coins), as well as gold and silver certificates, and online as e-Liberty Dollars, or eLD. You could swap them for goods and services at certain businesses, just like cash.

Libertarians loved Liberty Dollars, and they spread like wildfire across America. But the US government doesn’t like private currencies that compete with the dollar, and even has laws against creating them. The FBI said of Liberty Dollars:

“It is a violation of federal law for individuals . . . to create private coin or currency systems to compete with the official coinage and currency of the United States.”

The government came down hard on Liberty Dollars; it accused von NotHaus of facilitating the sale of child pornography and enabling money laundering. Bernard von NotHaus was found guilty of counterfeiting in 2011, and sentenced to three years’ probation. He was accused of domestic terrorism, but the government never pressed charges.

The judge said:

“While these forms of anti-government activities do not involve violence, they are every bit as insidious and represent a clear and present danger to the economic stability of this country."

Clearly Satoshi Nakamoto has at least one excellent reason to keep his identity under wraps: to stay out of jail.

Joshua Davis From The New Yorker

Despite Satoshi’s express wishes for privacy, journalists have hunted him for years. Every journalist that’s tried has turned up a different candidate. Leah Goodman of Newsweek found Dorian Nakamoto, Wired and Gizmodo ‘outed’ Craig Wright and David Kleiman, and The New Yorker’s Joshua Davis gave us Michael Clear.

Source: FSG Originals

Davis’s journey to find Satoshi began at the Crypto 2011 conference, a small gathering of 300 of the world's most important and influential cryptographers. In attendance were representatives from intelligence agencies like the NSA, as well as many academics. Their vital work all but guarantees our safety online, yet few of us know their names. Davis wrote:

“In all likelihood, Nakamoto belonged to this insular world. If I wanted to find him, the Crypto 2011 conference would be the place to start.”

He solicited help from the conference’s chair, Phillip Rogaway, by framing his search for Satoshi as “trying to learn more about what it would take to create Bitcoin.” Rogaway told Davis that “It’s likely I either know the person [Satoshi] or know their work.” He then offered to introduce Davis to some cryptographers who fitted the bill.

The first problem Davis faced was how to pick Satoshi, a highly adept cryptographer, out of a field of 300 other highly adept cryptographers. He needed a way to whittle down the list, which he did by looking at Satoshi’s word choices and spelling, and the times of day he worked.

Satoshi used British spellings in the Bitcoin whitepaper (“colour,” “grey,” “modernised,”), and once described writing a description of Bitcoin for the masses as “bloody hard,” which Davis understood to mean he was either British or lived in the UK. Davis also noted that Satoshi’s emails and forum posts were timestamped just after UK office hours ended, which added more weight to his theory that Satoshi Nakamoto lived and worked in the UK and worked on Bitcoin in his spare time.

(It was important to note that Davis has received considerable criticism for this sleuthing since The New Yorker published its piece about Clear. It was pointed out that British spelling is used all over the world, not just in the UK (Hong Kong and Australia, for instance). Additionally, Satoshi’s work hours better match the US East Coast than the UK. As such, Davis’s criteria weren’t quite as black-and-white as he made them out to be.)

Nevertheless, Davis’s criteria led him to the nine Crypto Conference attendees who lived and worked in the UK. Six of these cryptographers worked at the University of Bristol, and Davis spoke with them at one of the conference’s cocktail parties. They had all heard of Bitcoin, but none of them expressed any interest in it, nor had any of the six worked with peer-to-peer technologies like Bitcoin. “It’s not at all interesting to us,” they said.

This left Davis with just three UK-based cryptographers. Two of these had no experience developing large-scale software projects, so they were out; the other was Michael Clear.

Davis emailed Clear, asking to interview him about Bitcoin, and they agreed to meet outside the lecture hall the following day. At the time, Clear had no idea that the interview would lead to his being featured in one of the world’s most famous magazines.

Davis told Clear that he had read about his academic experience, his work for Allied Irish Banks, and his papers on P2P technology, and thought he might have some unique insight on Bitcoin. Davis wrote “he was hired by Allied Irish Banks to improve its currency-trading software,” which Clear later said wasn’t quite accurate. “My involvement with AIB was through an undergrad project,” he said. “I was not an employee,” he said, adding later that he wasn’t paid for the work.

Regardless of the type of job he had, it’s noteworthy that Clear worked in the banking sector during the 2008 banking crisis. In Bitcoin’s genesis block, Satoshi included the words “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.” This was a reference to the UK government bailing out more banks using taxpayer money.

When Davis asked Clear about the banking crisis, he said, “It could have been averted.”

The conversation moved on to cryptocurrencies. Clear told Davis that his work focused on “fully homomorphic encryption,” not cryptocurrencies, and that he hadn’t followed Bitcoin’s progress. Davis’s theory didn’t look likely to pan out, but he pushed on regardless. To be fair to Davis, Clear’s technical skills are impressive: he has programmed computers since he was ten and could code to a high level in several coding languages, including C++, the language Satoshi used to write Bitcoin.

The conversation then moved on to Bitcoin. “It needs to prove itself,” Clear said, “but it’s an intriguing idea.” Davis then revealed to Clear his true mission: to find Satoshi Nakamoto.

“Are you Satoshi?” Davis asked. Clear laughed, but didn’t deny it. Instead, he offered to review Bitcoin’s code and give Davis his thoughts.

Clear would later express his regret for not telling Davis he wasn’t Satoshi in more forceful terms:
“When Bitcoin came up, I remember we had a brief casual chat; I was naturally startled when he thought I could be Satoshi, and there was some humour and regrettable mistakes on my part.”

He has denied being Satoshi many times since then.

A week after the Crypto Conference, Clear emailed Davis his thoughts on Bitcoin. He thought it was brilliant, and he said he could identify Satoshi.

“It is apparent that the person(s) behind the Satoshi name accumulated a not insignificant knowledge of applied cryptography,” Clear wrote. Bitcoin’s design was “elegant,” and whoever built it possessed considerable “programming proficiency.” This, Clear suggested, meant the number of people who could have designed Bitcoin is very small, and he knew one person who fit the profile perfectly: Vili Lehdonvirta.

Vili Lehdonvirta

Lehdonvirta, a Finnish researcher at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, was studying virtual currencies at the time Clear gave Davis his name. But when Davis spoke with him, Lehdonvirta pointed out he had little knowledge of cryptography and severely limited C++ skills, and so couldn’t possibly have built Bitcoin. “You need to be a crypto expert to build something as sophisticated as Bitcoin,” Lehdonvirta said. And he was no crypto expert.

Clear clarified later that he hadn’t really meant for Davis to email and interview Lehdonvirta: he was trying to make the point that even a cursory brainstorm would turn up people who better fit Satoshi’s profile than he did. “My mention of identifying Satoshi was not meant to be construed so seriously (the humour is apparently lost). It is somewhat more accurate to say that I thought I could identify some Satoshi leads (and I even mean that very lightly),” he wrote on his blog.

After Lehdonvirta turned out to be a dead end, Davis’s attention turned back to Clear. Davis probed him again, searching for any clues that might lead him to Satoshi’s door. Clear admitted that yes, he was an excellent programmer who understood cryptography, and now that he’d seen Bitcoin’s code, he appreciated its design, But he wasn’t interested in economics. This put a spanner in the works for Davis because Satoshi was very interested in politics.

Clear said in the end:

“I’m not Satoshi. But even if I was I wouldn’t tell you.”

This taunting quip gave The New Yorker a good reason to doubt his previous testimony. Because as far as Davis and The New Yorker were concerned, Clear may as well have said “Yeah, I might be Satoshi. But you will never know.” Almost as if he were throwing down a gauntlet.

Clear later told that the quote seemed far more serious than he had meant; it didn’t capture the humour he was going for:

“My sense of humour when I said, ‘even if I was I wouldn’t tell you’ is missing, this was said jokingly.”

The New Yorker Piece

Source: The New Yorker

After The New Yorker published Davis’s piece, Clear was bombarded with emails and interview requests. But the Irish Times let him get his side of the story out before things snowballed out of control.

Clear, it seems, was under the impression that his role in Davis’s article was much smaller than it really was. He told Irish Times journalists “I thought I might feature in one paragraph as a possible candidate who was quickly eliminated.” He also said he was “bemused” by the whole experience.

“When Bitcoin came up, I remember we had a brief casual chat; I was naturally startled when he thought I could be Satoshi, and there was some humour and regrettable mistakes on my part,” he said.

Clear then posted his official response to the fiasco on his blog.
“I'm a humble research student with an interest in crypto; I am very far from being any kind of expert in anything. As mentioned earlier, I never worked in a bank, and I'm certainly not an economist (I've received emails to this effect :)). My interest in Bitcoin stemmed from its design and its cryptographic properties etc.”

Clear has since expressed his relief that the spotlight didn’t settle on him for too long, and that he’s emerged from the experience unscathed.

“I have strongly denied being Satoshi many times, and I'm glad that the whole thing has largely blown over.”

The Evidence That Michael Clear Could Be Satoshi Nakamoto

#1 His Technical Skills and Academic Background

Michael Clear has most of the technical skills necessary to have invented Bitcoin. He studied computer science at undergraduate level; he studied cryptography at a graduate level; and he’s a highly adept C++ programmer.

#2 His Time Zone

If we take Satoshi’s email and forum post timestamps, and assume he worked on Bitcoin after finishing a day job with normal 9 to 5 hours, then we could assume that Satoshi works and lives in the UK. Or at least he did when he built Bitcoin.

Michael Clear also lives and works in this time zone.

#3 Clear Was Involved in Banking During the 2008 Banking Crisis

Bitcoin’s genesis block contains an obvious reference to problems inherent to central banks and fiat currencies (The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks) which Satoshi sought to solve. We can therefore assume that Satoshi either had a keen understanding of banking and economics, or perhaps even worked in banking, but that he considered the British government’s reaction to the crisis to be wholly inadequate.

During the time Satoshi Nakamoto developed Bitcoin, Michael Clear was working alongside bankers for the Allied Irish Banks during the crisis. When he was asked for his opinion on the crisis, he said, “It could have been averted.”

The Evidence That Michael Clear Likely Isn’t Satoshi Nakamoto

#1 He Says He Isn’t Satoshi

Every time Clear was asked whether he invented Bitcoin, he denied it. On the one occasion he hinted he might be, he said, "even if I was I wouldn’t tell you.” But this is hardly an admission of guilt – it’s more of a passing comment.

#2 The Timeline

When Satoshi was developing Bitcoin, Clear was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin. Given that he won an academic award that year, it seems unlikely that he had time to develop Bitcoin during the same period.

#3 Not Interested in Economics

On several occasions, Clear has stated that he’s not interested in economics. This doesn’t match up with what we know about Satoshi – who was keenly interested in economics.

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