Should Newsweek Have Unmasked The Founder of Bitcoin?

By Noah J. Nelson (@noahjnelson)

Newsweek claims that they have found the elusive founder of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, and have released a cover story online that is a thrilling piece of investigatory journalism. According to Newsweek's Leah McGrath Goodman the name isn't a pseudonym as many have assumed, but the birth name of the actual founder. This is taut writing with the kind of details that make for great storytelling:

Mitchell suspects Nakamoto's initial interest in creating a digital currency that could be used anywhere in the world may have stemmed from his frustration with bank fees and high exchange rates when he was sending international wires to England to buy model trains. "He would always complain about that," she says. "I would not say he writes flawless English. He will pick up words and mix the spellings."

This is the kind of piece most journalists would give their eye teeth to write. Of course, the amount of work involved--searching the National Archives, for example--isn't the kind of thing that 12-piece-a-day Gawker writers could get around to.

On the other side of the coin (ugh, sorry) there's the ethics questions about choosing to run photos of this Nakamoto and his house, along with the names of his family members and other identifying information. The initial contacts with Nakamoto were conducted under false pretenses before turning to the subject of Bitcoin. The comments section of the piece goes crazy over the photos and other details--"doxing" in hacker-speak--accusing Newsweek of essentially serving this guy up for possible assassination.

Which is pretty absurd, but it is not like the Bitcoin universe isn't full of shady characters. Not to mention that it is assumed that the founder is worth $400 million dollars in Bitcoin, even though this Nakamoto is living the life of a middle class recluse.

The histrionics of the comments section reveals a deep naiveté about human nature from the chattering class, one I'd say the Bitcoin founder shares. We are a species with a defining trait of deep curiosity. By doing his damnedest to hide from the spotlight the founder of Bitcoin drew down more attention than if he (or she, if this isn't the right Nakamoto) took to a SXSW stage and bold declared the creation as the next great thing.

As for the family members identified: these are adults. They talked to the press, which shows to me that they have a firmer grip on reality that the commenters who are speculating that blackmailers might kidnap Nakamoto's daughter and extort him for nearly half a billion dollars.

This stuff wouldn't even be worth talking about if the collective unconscious of the Internet didn't seem to be ruled by the imaginations of 14-year-old boys (and those that think like 14-year-old boys). Look, fellas, I love me some Liam Neesons as much as the next guy--well maybe not as much as those guys--but the plot of Taken belongs in discussions about the state of the International film marketplace not in discussions of International monetary policy.

I'll grant that the pictures might be over the line, in that private citizens should be afforded more privacy considerations than elected officials. Yet this is a reminder that if you act in the public sphere you're going to be scrutinized in public. Nakamoto may  only think of Bitcoin as an experiment that got out of hand, but we won't know unless he talks about it. If his goal was to create an alternate currency that makes elected officials uncomfortable, then he succeeded. When you play at that level of power politics you damn well better be ready for the cameras.

Public media's, covers tech and digital culture from the West Coast.