Linguistic fingerprints in ‘little words’ may have identified the real Bitcoin creator

RoboCoin bitcoin ATM
Image Credit: YouTube

A group of researchers at Britain’s Aston University claim that the likely creator of Bitcoin is digital currency blogger Nick Szabo.

“The number of linguistic similarities between Szabo’s writing and the Bitcoin paper is uncanny, none of the other possible authors were anywhere near as good of a match,” said Professor of Forensic Linguistics, Jack Grieve, in a statement.

“We are pretty confident that out of the list of people regularly referred to as possibilities, Nick Szabo is the main author of the paper, though we can’t rule out the possibility that others contributed.”

Szabo has long been a suspicion of Bitcoin sleuths, even after Newsweek’s epic fail of a front-page story claiming that the creator was 64-year-old LA resident Dorian Nakamoto. Szabo has written widely on the topics of digital currency and contracts. The glaring piece of evidence, however, is that he authored his own currency, bit gold.

But I was skeptical that forensic analysis was a reasonable way to identify the original author of the famous Bitcoin white paper since, statistically speaking, any analysis had to find someone who was similar to the author. That is, the analysis ranked all of the suspected Bitcoin creators by similarity. So, by definition, someone had to be #1. We asked the Dr. Grieve to defend his position.

“We are using the set of possible authors identified in the media, and we are comparing the Bitcoin paper to their writings — and he is the best match,” Grieve explained to me in an email.

“I don’t know what are the odds that the set of authors identified by the media is valid, and I wouldn’t want to speculate. I will say this though: Szabo is the only plausible main author out of the 11. If Szabo hadn’t been in our list, and we had only looked at 10 authors, then we wouldn’t have claimed that any matched.”

Author identification through linguistic has a fun (and successful history). Last year, scientists discovered that literary goddess J.K Rowling was indeed the actual author of the breakout best-seller Cuckoo’s Calling, which was published under the nom de plume “Robert Galbraith.”

“Prepositions and articles and similar little function words are actually very individual,” explained, Patrick Juola, a Professor of Computer Science at Pittsburgh’s Duquesne University.

“It’s actually very, very hard to change them because they’re so subconscious.”

I’m sympathetic to this technique. Back when I was a graduate student, one of my professors build a custom program to identify plagiarists by comparing the similarity of their papers to one another. The correlations between cheaters and non-cheaters was pretty big. At some point, if someone is actually duplicating chunks of a paper, its easy to identify those that a computer program flags.

To be clear, determining the author of origin is a very controversial technique in criminal proceedings, and there’s a debate about how to properly weigh this type of evidence. But, as for the hunt of the originator of Bitcoin, it might be more plausible, since there’s a lot of other contextual facts to back up the suspicion.

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