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We are all Satoshi Nakamoto: Newsweek proves how fragile our anonymity is online

newsweek satoshi nakamoto privacy anonymity is online

Wow. What a scoop. What a shame. What the hell is going on?

You can say a lot about Newsweek’s exposure of Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, a 64-year-old California man, whom the magazine claims is the enigmatic creator of the Bitcoin cryptocurrency. But the most obvious thing to say is, “What a mess.” 

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Within hours of Newsweek’s publication of “The Face Behind Bitcoin,” the cover story for its re-launched print version written by Senior Writer Leah McGrath Goodman, Nakamoto flatly denied his involvement in Bitcoin, telling the Associated Press that, not only is he not Bitcoin’s creator, he only learned of the popular digital currency three weeks ago. To add another nail in Newsweek’s coffin, the “real” Satoshi Nakamoto posted to an online forum account, which had been silent since early 2011, saying simply, “I am not Dorian Nakamoto.”

As private people, most of us can relate to Nakamoto’s nightmare.

Who’s right and who’s lying here is important – especially for Newsweek, McGrath Goodman, and the Satoshi Nakamotos of the world. More important for the rest of us, however, is what this invasion of privacy – and it is an invasion of privacy, even if you think it’s ultimately justified – reveals about our own vulnerabilities in this era of data trails, Google searches, and nearly instantaneous public exposure on an unfathomable scale.

Even before the Nakamoto story descended into journalistic chaos, much of the public, especially those in the Bitcoin world, reacted to it with nothing short of outrage. Newsweek published (then removed) a photo of Nakamoto’s “humble” Southern California home, which revealed his street number and license plate number, thus allowing anyone with a drip of search skills to pinpoint his address on Google Maps. (I found it in less than three minutes thanks to a real-estate website and information from the photo.) For a man ostensibly behind one of the most controversial technologies in existence – a man who may be worth nearly $1 billion in Bitcoin – life suddenly got dangerous.

While concern for Nakamoto plays a significant role in our collective indignation toward Newsweek’s report, what really riles us up is the fact that Nakamoto – whether he is the Nakamoto or not – was a private person whose life is now splayed onto the world stage. He actively avoided the spotlight – or, worse, never had a spotlight to avoid in the first place.

67-2014-3-14-coverAs private people, most of us can relate to Nakamoto’s nightmare. Unlike, say, the data we know the NSA or Google collects on us, this type of privacy invasion is tangible – we understand, on a visceral level, the consequences of appearing in a major publication’s cover story. We can imagine a demanding reporter showing up on our doorstep to ask prying questions. We can imagine our lives being turned upside down by further unwanted publicity. We can imagine our own private stories suddenly spinning out of control in front of everyone. We can imagine it happening to us.

Meanwhile, Newsweek’s supporters say that exposing Nakamoto is right and good and written in the stars. “The Bitcoin story is too big and too important not to be fully investigated and told, writes Forbes’ Kashmir Hill. “When Nakamoto sent his project out into the world in 2008, under his real name no less, it was inevitable that he would one day be unmasked.”

But the reason anyone cares about the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto is, in many ways, the result of luck – if you want to call it that – and the independent work of other people. When the Bitcoin creator ceased involvement in the cryptocurrency’s development in January of 2011, the price of a single Bitcoin was about 40 cents. Satoshi Nakamoto has virtually nothing to do with its rise to more than $600 today – and likely has nothing to do with its future failures or success, either. Had Bitcoin continued to wallow at such a low level, would Newsweek have published a cover story about it? Not likely.

Newsweek’s supporters say that exposing Nakamoto is right and good and written in the stars.

If Dorian Nakamoto is telling the truth, then his newfound fame is the result of sick luck, too – the unluckiness of having the name Satoshi Nakamoto with the computer engineering background to make us all suspicious.

Whether or not you engineer cryptocurrency in your free time, Nakamoto’s exposure proffers one very important lesson: Anonymity is an illusion. Fact is, each of us is one social media misstep, one accident, one fluke of luck from appearing in headlines across the Web and the world.  All of the information that could expose us to a harsh world, just as Nakamoto is now exposed, is out there, waiting for life to make it valuable to anyone who wants to exploit it. And Newsweek’s Nakamoto story shows us what happens when they do.

So, be careful out there; you never know when you might suddenly be worth looking for.

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