Parsing Satoshi: What the Malmi emails reveal about Bitcoin’s creator

The correspondence portrays a more informal, conversational Satoshi Nakamoto, but perhaps suffering from job “burnout.”
The correspondence portrays a more informal, conversational Satoshi Nakamoto, but perhaps suffering from job “burnout.”

The 260 emails run 140,000 words — the length of a long novel — but this online correspondence between Satoshi Nakamoto, Bitcoin’s creator, and Martti Malmi, an early developer, comprises a “trove” of primary historical information about Bitcoin’s early days. 

Some of the material published by Malmi last week isn’t new. It includes fragments from Bitcoin’s “question and answer dump,” for instance, that have been seen before, so one has to tread carefully before claiming new revelations.

Still, the email exchanges, mainly between Malmi and Satoshi, dating from May 2009 to February 2011, present Bitcoin’s pseudonymous founder in, arguably, a more casual and natural light than widely seen before.

He is by turns prescient and naive — anticipating even back in 2009 that Bitcoin might eventually face some ecological or environmental problems because of its energy-intensive proof-of-work validation mechanism, for instance: “Ironic if we end up having to choose between economic liberty and conservation,” he says.

Yet he doesn’t seem to grasp Bitcoin’s scaling challenges. In a May 3, 2009 email, he writes:

Excerpt from one of the Malmi emails. Source: GitHub

Why has the correspondence appeared just now? Malmi did “not feel comfortable sharing private correspondence earlier,” as he explained in the GitHub posting, but he decided to do so because of “an important trial in the U.K. in 2024 where I was a witness,” referring to the group of cryptocurrency exchanges and developers that brought suit against Craig Wright, who himself claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto.

Last week, Cointelegraph canvassed knowledgeable industry sources for reactions to this electronic mail bonanza and what, if anything, it adds to our understanding of Bitcoin’s history and its elusive founder.

Jeremy Clark, co-author with Arvind Narayanan in an often-cited 2017 paper on Bitcoin’s precursors, was asked if he found anything surprising in the email hoard.

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The “tone was much more conversational and informal than Satoshi’s postings on the mailing list [a historic document],” Clark told Cointelegraph, though cautioning that the published emails are also interspersed with quotes from earlier emails that were made public before. So, some quotes are new, and some are not, which can be confusing.

For instance, in email #3 (May 3, 2009), Satoshi refers to the Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (EC-DSA), which is a cryptographically secure digital signature scheme: “But EC-DSA can’t encrypt messages like RSA, it can only be used to verify signatures.” This is not new, noted Clark, who nonetheless commented:

“Strictly speaking, EC-DSA cannot do encryption, but an EC-DSA public key can do encryption — for example, with Elgamal encryption — so this suggests to me that Satoshi is not a cryptography expert.” 

Clark added: “I say this with the greatest respect to the person who wrote one of the most highly cited cryptography papers of all time.”

Now an associate professor at Canada’s Concordia University, Clark was struck by Satoshi’s language, which isn’t always “woke.” At one point, Bitcoin’s creator says: “I know this sounds really r*tarded.” [email #24].

That didn’t age well,” Clark said.

It actually contrasts with “his hesitancy to swear generally,” continued Clark. For example, “‘Sourceforge is just so darn slow.’ [email #45] ‘I’ve tested the heck out of it [email #44].’”

“Maybe he grew up religious? Southern USA? A lot of the other slang he uses — sweet, newbies, suck, screwed, goofball — makes me think he isn’t super old. He talks like I did then,” said Clark, who was born in the early 1980s.

Satoshi’s language drew comments from other readers. In email #117, Satoshi uses the term “Disco/web-1990’s.”

“From this, it can be concluded that he was an active user of the internet in the 1990s,” Jan Lansky, who heads the department of computer science and mathematics at Prague’s University of Finance and Administration, told Cointelegraph.

In email #118, Satoshi uses the keyword “loop” in the source code. “This keyword is used very rarely in programming languages,” Lansky continued. Indeed, Lansky did a search and found that it was used in the Forth programming language, which was also a stack-based model like Bitcoin’s scripting language. Lansky added:

“The Forth language was used in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in embedded systems or telecommunications, [otherwise] it was never widely used.”

So perhaps Satoshi worked in the telecom industry?

Satoshi’s day job? 

Maybe Satoshi’s regular work didn’t even involve programming. “It’s good to be coding again!" Satoshi proclaims on Oct. 16, 2009 (email #35).

Clark said, “Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but he doesn’t say good to be coding on Bitcoin again, just good to be coding again,” adding:

“This makes me wonder if his day job — the one that he gets too busy with to work on Bitcoin in [the Malmi] emails — does not involve coding.”

It is often asked why Satoshi walked away from Bitcoin, passing the baton to Gavin Andresen in early 2011. Maybe a demanding “day job” had something to do with it. If so, this makes for a less dramatic story than some other speculation, such as the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) targeting Bitcoin’s inventor.

“I’ve also been busy with other things for the last month and a half,” says Satoshi on May 16, 2010, in email #192, “I just now downloaded my e-mail since the beginning of April [...] I’m not going to be much help right now either, pretty busy with work, and need a break from it after 18 months development.”

According to Clark, “This is the best picture of why Satoshi left” the scene. It had nothing to do with the CIA or other sinister happenings: “He just burned out.”

As Bitcoin became more popular, Clark further theorized, “Every break you take results in a bigger stack of things to go through, which makes you more likely to put it off.” Eventually, Satoshi “just gave up and ghosted the project.”

Once Satoshi decides to withdraw from day-to-day Bitcoin-related activities, Malmi plays a role in finding his replacement: “Should we make a recruitment thread on the forum?” he asks Satoshi on Dec. 3, 2010 (email #240).

Satoshi answers (email #241) the same day: “It should be Gavin [Andresen]. I trust him, he’s responsible, professional, and technically much more Linux capable than me.”

Three days later (email #242), Malmi responds: “Ok, I’ll ask him.”

Satoshi vs. Chaum

Martien van Steenbergen appears in email #3 asking about Bitcoin’s new payment system: “Is this akin to David Chaum’s anonymous digital money?”

Satoshi labors to explain the differences between his invention and Chaum’s DigiCash, adding:

Excerpt from one of the Malmi emails. Source: GitHub

Did Satoshi have a point? Did he foresee how a decentralized currency would prevail over all the centralized money experiments?

“Chaum’s centralized approach suffers from a single point of failure, its center,” Steenbergen, a senior agile and lean management trainer, coach and product owner at AardRock in the Netherlands, told Cointelegraph. “So Satoshi has a point there. What I do not like about Bitcoin is that, over the years, you have witnessed its enormous energy hunger to mine the coins. Also, I despise its concentration of wealth. The world needs a distributed, safe, secure, open [source], and cheap system that favors all, not just a few.”

Lansky added: “At that time, there were many centralized systems of electronic money, which failed one by one precisely because of the failure of the central authority. Satoshi also had historical knowledge of state financial systems, which, on average, fail after decades.”

The matter of Bitcoin’s potential energy profligacy is also addressed in the emails, though in 2009, Bitcoin (BTC) mining’s electrical usage was minuscule. Today, by comparison, Bitcoin’s annualized power consumption is comparable to that of Ukraine, and its carbon footprint is roughly equivalent to that of Romania, according to Digiconomist.

In email #3, Satoshi comments on the potentially troubling tradeoff between security — provided by Bitcoin’s energy-intensive proof-of-work validation mechanism — and energy conservation. As quoted above, he notes the irony of one day having to choose “between economic liberty and conservation.”

Satoshi continues, “even if it [i.e., Bitcoin] did grow to consume significant energy, I think it would still be less wasteful than the labour and resource intensive conventional banking activity it would replace.”

Maybe Satoshi was “greener” than we knew?

Vili Lehdonvirta, professor of economic sociology and digital social research at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, doesn’t see it that way. “It’s definitely not very green. It’s a sort of ‘whatabout’ argument, but it fails even at that because the cryptocurrency industry ended up creating its own labor and resource waste, including massive amounts of spam,” he told Cointelegraph.

Unmasking Satoshi: Does it matter?

Overall, do the emails bring us closer to learning the true identity of Bitcoin’s inventor? And if not, should we care?

“They help eliminate candidates, which is why they came up in the trial,” Clark told Cointelegraph. “There are maybe some small clues, but my view is that there are not enough public facts known about Satoshi to identify him based on what we know.”

“He’s definitely not very Japanese,” Lehdonvirta told Cointelegraph. “But that we knew already.”

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We may never know Satoshi’s identity, and maybe it doesn’t matter. It’s the system that’s important — and that transcends any individual, company or government.

Or as cryptographer Michael Clear told the New Yorker back in 2011: “Anybody can review the code, and the network isn’t controlled by any one entity. That’s what inspires confidence in the system.”

And maybe that’s why Satoshi could just walk away.