Even as it has grown into a new type of digital money worth billions of dollars, Bitcoin has always retained an air of mystery.
Central to its cachet has been the mythic status of the system’s creator. Its developer went by the name Satoshi Nakamoto, but that is all that Bitcoin’s adopters seemed to know — or wanted to know. After all, Bitcoin was a project dedicated in part to making it easier to avoid the all-seeing gaze of the government and corporate America.
But the inventor of the virtual currency may not be quite the international man of mystery some aficionados imagined him to be. Could he in fact be a model-train fanatic living with his mother in a modest house in Southern California?
That, at least, was what Newsweek, with a newly revived print version, reported Thursday. But the man the magazine claimed to be behind the Bitcoin curtain has a nearly similar name — Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto — which raised questions about why he had not been discovered sooner. Many digital currency aficionados said they doubted the veracity of the report.
The Nakamoto identified in the article denied involvement in Bitcoin on Thursday after a car chase involving a crowd of reporters. He told the Associated Press that he had not heard of the virtual currency until his son told him about being contacted by a reporter three weeks ago.
Nakamoto acknowledged that many of the details in Newsweek’s report are correct, including that he once worked for a defense contractor, and that his given name at birth was Satoshi. But he strongly disputed the magazine’s assertion that he is ‘‘the face behind Bitcoin.’’
‘‘I got nothing to do with it,’’ he told the AP repeatedly.
If the identification is wrong, it would not be the first time a reporter had incorrectly determined the identity of Bitcoin’s creator.
Yet even if the report proves correct, virtual currency proponents at Bitcoin conferences in Texas and Barbados said that identifying Nakamoto would be a violation of the privacy the currency was intended to protect.
Whatever the conclusion, the furor Thursday laid bare just how far Bitcoin had moved beyond its humble origins five years ago — and just how much it still relied on the mystique of those beginnings.
“In reality, a lot of people didn’t want to know,” said Arianna Simpson, a Bitcoin entrepreneur. “Not knowing and thinking that maybe it had been a community project, again, I think was very well tied to the essence of Bitcoin. To have it exposed in this way I don’t think does anybody a particular service.”
For Nakamoto, Newsweek’s report was clearly an unwelcome event. On Thursday, a team of journalists was camped outside his house in Temple City, Calif.
When a reporter knocked on his front door, an older woman answered, but Nakamoto quickly came to shut the door, shouting, “No, no, no!” as he did.
Bitcoin watchers said the creator’s supposed anonymity had played a vital role in the growth of a virtual currency that has become a potent symbol for privacy advocates and critics of government power.
“Having this level of mystery allowed people to project their optimism and their hopes onto the currency,” said Richard Peterson, chief executive of MarketPsych, a research company that has studied virtual currencies. “If it’s true and people start to believe it, it undermines that mystique.”