Satoshi Files: Zooko Wilcox-O’Hearn
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Satoshi Files: Zooko Wilcox-O’Hearn

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Zooko Wilcox-O'Hearn is an American computer scientist, cryptographer and cypherpunk who was involved in Bitcoin in the early days, and later created Zcash.

Satoshi Files: Zooko Wilcox-O’Hearn

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American computer scientist and cryptographer Zooko Wilcox-O'Hearn was born Bryce Wilcox; after getting married, he and his wife double-barrelled their last names, and he began going as Zooko in college.

Source: Forbes

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Early Life

Zooko was born and has lived most of his life in Boulder, Colorado, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. When Zooko was five years old, his family relocated to Texas, where his father — also a computer scientist — worked on the TI-99/4, one of the first personal computers ever made. After the computers were finished, Zooko's father took one home so his sons could practice using it.

To begin with, all Zooko and his brothers managed to do was input nonsensical BASIC code into the computer. But as time went on, they started learning Logo, an educational programming language specifically designed for kids. “You could make colorful shapes and then you could script them to fly around the screen and change and animate and bounce off of each other,” he told Forbes.

The Wilcox family then moved to Colorado Springs, again for Zooko’s father’s work. While his father worked in the defense industry, Zooko discovered online bulletin message boards where he could talk with other geeks and tech enthusiasts about computers, technology and the newly invented internet.

“When I discovered the internet a couple of years later, I was extremely excited… [I thought that] the internet was the end of national borders serving as walls preventing people from communicating.”

After graduating high school, Zooko followed in his father’s footsteps and decided to become a computer scientist. He elected to study computer science at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he first learned about the Cypherpunks.

Joining the Cypherpunks

Source: Bitnovo Blog

The Cypherpunks are a group of cryptographers who explore how cryptography and other privacy tools could bring about social and political change. The group's members included Bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakamoto; the creator of Reusable Proof-of-Work (RPoW), Hal Finney; and Adam Back, who developed the Hashcash function used by both Hal Finney's RPoW and Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin. And Zooko himself, of course.
The Cypherpunks focused on digital currencies, including Satoshi's Bitcoin, Wei Dai's b-money, and David Chaum's Ecash, as well as private communication tools that encrypt data and allow users to communicate without fear of being spied on. Zooko first used the alias he uses today as a Cypherpunk. Years later, Zooko recalled how his conversations with other Cypherpunks helped him “imagine technological developments having social impact… that technology would change how whole human communities interacted with each other.”

David Chaum (Source: MARCA)

In the mid 90s, an American computer scientist and Cypherpunk called David Chaum shared his ideas for ‘untraceable digital cash’ with the Cypherpunks mailing list. After reading the message, Zooko contacted Chaum to see whether he needed assistance with the project. Zooko took a leave of absence from his studies to work on Chaum's DigiCash project after the latter agreed to hire him.

Chaum tasked Zooko with figuring out how to decentralize DigiCash. Sadly, although he realized on the job that DigiCash's centralization was a thorn in its side, Zooko was unable to come up with a practical means to fix it. What the world really needed, Zooko thought, was digital cash that didn’t require a third party to mediate disputes from the center.

DigiCash eventually folded. A few former workers said that centralization was the main cause of its demise: the major banks didn't trust a currency controlled by a single entity that sat in the middle and had total authority. This issue wasn't resolved until Satoshi developed Bitcoin many years later.

After DigiCash went out of business, Zooko worked as a developer at Mojo Nation, a P2P file-sharing startup similar to BitTorrent. Mojo incorporated a number of features that Satoshi would eventually add to Bitcoin, including the ability to digitally represent unique items, or "tokenization." At Mojo, Zooko persisted in looking for a solution to the centralization problem that dogged all prior attempts at creating a digital currency. Zooko said:
“I had struggled for more than 10 years to try to make a decentralized currency, and I couldn’t make it work. In large part, I was waiting for Satoshi.”

Involvement with Bitcoin

In October 2008, Satoshi shared the Bitcoin whitepaper with Zooko and the other Cypherpunks. It had what Zooko had been looking for: a digital currency that fixed DigiCash's centralization problems.

Zooko was one of the first Cypherpunks to get involved with Bitcoin, although he didn’t work on development. Instead, he helped spread the word about Bitcoin and its potential: in January 2009, he became the first person to blog about Bitcoin. From then on, he was adamant that Bitcoin would be an unmitigated success.

He even tweeted at Nobel laureates in economics in 2015, urging them to convince him that investing in Bitcoin at $4.50 was a poor idea. In retrospect, purchasing Bitcoin at $4.50 was clearly a wise investment given its all-time-high of nearly $70,000. However, the majority of people did not agree with Zooko at the time; they thought Bitcoin would only be used by criminals looking to conceal their illicit funds and that it would either fizzle out or be crushed by the regulators.

Just after Satoshi published the Bitcoin whitepaper, Zooko announced the ‘Tahoe’ least-authority file system: an open-source, secure, and decentralized file system which dispersed files through a peer network. Each peer on the network may exchange files with other peers, and the network keeps running even if some of the peers are down, broken, or malicious. The program's general public license, or GPL, allows users to run, examine, distribute and change the code.

Creating Zcash

Source: Wikipedia

Between 2010 and 2015, Zooko assisted a variety of businesses in the software development process. He worked on ZRTP, a cryptographic system for VoIP call encryption, and he was a developer for SimpleGeo and the Mnet network. Then in 2013, Zooko started what is likely his most significant professional endeavor to date: Zcash.

A Johns Hopkins University cryptographer named Matthew Green approached Zooko in 2014 and asked for his assistance in creating a new cryptocurrency that was both as decentralized as Bitcoin and guaranteed the anonymity of its users. Green intended Zcash to conceal details such as who was paying money to whom, and how much.

The issue of privacy is contentious for both pro- and anti-crypto groups. According to their detractors, privacy currencies would usher in a golden age of money laundering in which criminal organizations and rogue governments could transfer their illegal monies without being hindered by tax officials, governmental organizations, or the police.

The privacy advocates like Zooko, on the other hand, contend that regular people want and deserve privacy and that a desire for privacy does not always indicate wrongdoing. Furthermore, even before Bitcoin, the super-rich didn't have any trouble evading taxes: according to some estimates, up to $36 trillion is stashed away abroad, with hardly any of it being cryptocurrency.

Yet Zcash is more than just a privacy coin. Since it’s fully anonymous, nobody can prevent anybody else from sending or receiving criminal transactions online, including the police. Naturally, Zcash's legality wasn't fully understood while it was being developed. Yet before he got involved, Zooko was aware of the dangers. The week before development began, he admitted to his wife that it was frightful. “I might end up in jail. I might get murdered or extorted. I might go broke. I might be sort of crushed by it somehow. But it’s way too important not to do.”

Like Zooko, most venture capitalists and investors who heard about Zcash weren't too excited about the idea of an untraceable privacy coin. Many of them thought that this would lead to legal problems in the future. But Zooko and the other developers were determined to win them over.

In order to pitch a group of investors in 2015, Zooko and the team pooled their funds and traveled to California for a pitch meeting. Sadly, the investors treated Zooko and Matthew Green with contempt and more or less laughed them out of the room. Despite this poor start, they were nevertheless able to raise around $700,000 in a subsequent round of fundraising and an additional $2 million later that year. With that cash in the bank, Zooko and Green started working on the Zcash project.

Zcash operates in a remarkably unique way. It hides every transaction’s sender, receiver, and amount by using "zero-knowledge proofs." This is different from Bitcoin, which posts all transactions to a public ledger. A zero-knowledge proof shows that a claim is true without giving away any specific information about it.

In some ways, it's similar to cutting a hole in a sheet of paper and covering Waldo's face in a Where's Waldo puzzle to demonstrate your knowledge of Waldo's whereabouts without disclosing any further information about the problem or Waldo himself.

Consequently, anonymity is the main distinction between Bitcoin and Zcash. According to Zooko and Green, this distinction is similar to that between http and https: the latter is far more private and secure than the former. Nevertheless, it differs in one other crucial way as well: mining.
One of Bitcoin’s big pitfalls is that as the network grows, in order to have any chance of successfully mining it, you would need to fill whole warehouses with thousands of GPUs or ASICs miner. This is both expensive and energy intensive. But because Zcash mining relies on random access memory (RAM) rather than CPUs, the entrance barrier is considerably lower. In fact, you can even mine Zcash from a laptop.

While he was working on Zcash, Zooko established Least Authority, a security auditing firm which assisted its clients in preventing the accidental disclosure of private or secret information. Regrettably, the business didn't take off right away, and in order to survive, Zooko slept in his car in a parking lot each night in order to muddle through.

Nonetheless, Zcash quickly gained popularity and value, which undoubtedly helped Zooko find more accommodating lodgings. However, many of the news articles written about Zcash weren’t exactly flattering, especially in the early days.

Zcash didn't solve what some people thought were the more "serious" issues with Bitcoin, particularly its scalability, hence it wasn't widely seen as a significant improvement over Bitcoin. As was to be expected, many people criticized the currency and its developers for giving criminals a way to hide their illegal wealth. The headlines were saturated with claims that Zcash was crooked. Eventually, Zooko went to the extent of hiring an external organization to conduct a study on whether Zcash was used extensively by criminal organizations. The investigators found that just 1% of criminal merchants accepted Zcash, which pales in comparison to the 60% who accepted Bitcoin.

Nevertheless, that doesn't mean that Zcash isn't ever utilized for unlawful behavior, only that such instances are rare. When the study was released, Zooko was understandably relieved. He used it to show that anonymous transactions are not the same as ones that are illegal. He said:

“It sets a bad precedent if we fail and everyone takes the lesson that the governments of the world won't tolerate privacy and freedom and diversity and decentralization.”

The Evidence That Zooko Wilcox O’Hearn Could Be Satoshi Nakamoto

#1 He Has the Technical Skills

At an early age, Zooko's father showed him how to use a computer, and he hasn't stopped using them since. Zooko's extensive knowledge of programming and encryption, as well as his work on Zcash and DigiCash, demonstrate his technical prowess and suggest he may have been responsible for establishing Bitcoin.

#2 He’s a Cypherpunk

After learning about the Cypherpunks in college, Zooko engaged in several debates involving advanced topics such as encryption and emerging digital currencies. Perhaps before he started going by the alias "Satoshi Nakamoto," Satoshi registered to the Cypherpunk mailing group under his real name. Could that name be Zooko?

#3 A Suspicious T-Shirt

When Zooko was interviewed by Fortune Magazine, he wore a t-shirt saying, “I Am Satoshi Nakamoto.” Was this a cheeky joke? Or a clever double bluff?

The Evidence That Zooko Wilcox O’Hearn Likely Isn’t Satoshi Nakamoto

#1 He Was Very Busy When Satoshi Was Developing Bitcoin

Zooko was busy working for Mojo Nation, a P2P file-sharing startup similar to BitTorrent, when Satoshi was developing Bitcoin. Would he have had time to do both?

#2 A Lack of Direct Evidence Pointing To Him

Unlike some of the other candidates, there’s little in the way of direct evidence suggesting Zooko could be Satoshi; most of the evidence is contextual.

#3 He Says He Isn’t Satoshi.

Zooko denies being Satoshi, and often refers to Satoshi as a separate person. “I don't think of myself as a pioneer, like Satoshi,” he said. “I think of myself as somewhat more of a conduit for other people's inventions, including Satoshi's.”

So, do you think Zooko Wilcox O’Hearn created Bitcoin?

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