It's hard to remain anonymous, unknown. In my real life and online it's difficult. There are so many little things that can tip people off, so many mistakes you can make. For an explanation of just how easy it is to find people with just a few datapoints, I recommend this fascinating New Yorker article about attempting to unmask the founder of bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, unfortunately not available to nonsubscribers on the site but you can try googling for the full article. Here are some selections:
How important is it that he hides?Kaminsky ticked off the skills Nakamoto would need to pull it off. "He's a world-class programmer, with a deep understanding of the C++ programming language," he said. "He understands economics, cryptography, and peer-to-peer networking.""Either there's a team of people who worked on this," Kaminsky said, "or this guy is a genius."Kaminsky wasn't alone in this assessment. Soon after creating the currency, Nakamoto posted a nine-page technical paper describing how bitcoin would function. That document included direct references to the work of Stuart Haber, a researcher at H.P. Labs, in Princeton. Haber is a director of the International Association for Cryptologic Research and knew all about bitcoin. "Whoever did this had a deep understanding of cryptography," Haber said when I called. "They've read the academic papers, they have a keen intelligence, and they're combining die concepts in a genuinely new way."Haber noted that the community of cryptographers is very small: about three hundred people a year attend die most important conference, the annual gadiering in Santa Barbara. In all likelihood, Nakamoto belonged to this insular world. If I wanted to find him, die Crypto 2011 conference would be the place to start.***Nakamoto's extensive online postings have some distinctive characteristics. First of all, there is the flawless English. Over the course of two years, he dashed off about eighty thousand words—the approximate length of a novel—and made only a few typos. He covered topics ranging from die theories of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises to die history of commodity markets. Perhaps most interestingly, when he created the first fifty bitcoins, now known as the "genesis block," he permanendy embedded a brief line of text into the data: "The Times 03/fan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks."This is a reference to a Times of London article that indicated diat the British government had failed to stimulate the economy. Nakamoto appeared to be saying diat it was time to try something new. The text, hidden amid a jumble of code, was a sort of digital battle cry. It also indicated that Nakamoto read a British newspaper. He used British spelling ("favour," "colour," "grey," "modernised") and at one point described something as being "bloody hard." An apartment was a "flat," math was "maths," and his comments tended to appear after normal business hours ended in the United Kingdom. In an initial post announcing bit-coin, he employed American-style spelling. But after that a British style appeared to flow naturally.I had this in mind when I started to attend the lectures at the Crypto 2011 conference, including ones with titles such as "Leftover Hash Lemma, Revisited" and "Time-Lock Puzzles in the Random Oracle ModeL" In the back of a darkened auditorium, I stared at the attendee list. A Frenchman onstage was talking about testing the security of encryption systems. The most effective method, he said, is to attack die system and see if it fails. I ran my finger past dozens of names and addresses, circling residents of the United Kingdom and Ireland. There were nine.
Nakamoto had good reason to hide: people who experiment with currency tend to end up in trouble. In 1998, a Hawaiian resident named Bernard von Notllaus began fabricating silver and gold coins that he dubbed Libert}' Dollars. Nine years later, the U.S. government charged Notllaus with "conspiracy against die United States." He was found guilty and is awaiting sentencing. "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 F.B.I, announced at the end of die trial.The moral of this story is that it is very hard to not have a presence, online or offline, that would eventually lead to your detection. Trying to keep stuff unknown is a good general strategy, but I think the only chance of real success is poisoning the well with disinformation.