The Anarchist Hacker Bitcoin Would Rather Not Talk About
Amir Taaki was once named one of Bitcoin's main developers, but he's gone to being barely mentioned in the cryptocurrency's history.
Amir Taaki at a hackathon. Image: DECENTRAL/Flickr
An acclaimed new book has afforded Bitcoin one of its periodic moments in the spotlight. Digital Gold, by New York Times reporter Nathaniel Popper, is, as its US subtitle puts it, "The Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money."
But readers might notice that Amir Taaki—arguably Bitcoin's most colourful misfit, and a guy who could easily have been a millionaire many times over—is absent from the book.
Popper was planning to make Taaki one of his central characters, alongside Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, former Mt Gox CEO Mark Karpeles, and the entrepreneur Wences Casares, the man credited in the book with sparking serious interest in Bitcoin from Silicon Valley types.
But the final edit includes just one reference to Taaki. Thousands of words that Popper wrote about the British programmer were excised, despite the lengths the journalist went to track Taaki down, speak to his family, and stand up the details of his high-wire involvements in Bitcoin.
"I thought he was kind of the most interesting character in the book in some ways," Popper told me when I spoke to him recently during his visit to promote Digital Gold in London. "He's lost so much from Bitcoin, and in a way he didn't care."
Taaki is the anti-materialist, anarchist hacker who believes that the technology of Bitcoin can set people free to live better lives, allowing us to exchange goods without the involvement of corporations, whether they be narcotics or building materials (he's big on self-sufficiency). After getting interested in Bitcoin, he became so central to the project that at one point he was named on the Bitcoin website as one of the four main developers. Popper says Taaki's exclusion had nothing to do with his views on drugs or the abolition of law enforcement—he just needed to cut, and Taaki "didn't end up exerting the influence that he wanted to exert."
Which is interesting itself. The first writing of Bitcoin's early history doesn't include one of the story's most compelling characters because the show has moved so far away from where he intended to guide it. Popper says Taaki was "pushed out" by other influential bitcoiners because he was talking about things that other leading Bitcoiners didn't want to be talking about.
The best yarn in the excised passages (which Popper agreed to send me) was the untold story of Taaki's disastrous involvement with Bitcoinica—a Bitcoin site from which so many coins were lost in two hacks that it made the BBC News.
It was 2012, roughly two years since Taaki had first heard about Bitcoin, when he reportedly agreed to take over the running of the popular but troubled Bitcoinica, an exchange where users could wager on the currency's price moves (Taaki's exact role at Bitcoinica is unclear). It had suffered a hack earlier that year in which £145,000-worth ($225,000) of coins had been lost.
Within days, another hack saw 18,500 coins (about $87,000 at the time) disappear. Taaki was living in East Berlin, and suddenly he was under pressure from major Bitcoin players like investor Roger Ver, who had 24,000 coins on Bitcoinica, to return their money.
"I'm not a business guy, I'm a coder."
In an attempt to counter suggestions that he was involved in the hack, Taaki dumped all of the site's code on the web—a disastrous move as it contained sensitive passwords. A few days later, another hacker took 40,000 of the site's remaining coins from the Mt Gox exchange where they were being stored. "A series of furious emails bounced around the world, with Amir taking much of the blame," writes Popper.
Then at a Bitcoin conference Taaki had organised in London that September, one of the bitcoiners who had lost big, and had filed a lawsuit against Taaki's company and his employees for their negligence, took his chance. Jesse Powell, now the CEO of Bitcoin exchange Kraken, turned up with the lawsuit on him.
When he saw Taaki standing at the check-in desk at the Royal National Hotel, he had a friend hand over the papers so that the suit was formally served.
"What are you going to do about this—you lost everyone's coins?" Popper reports Powell asking Taaki.
"I'm not a business guy, I'm a coder," Taaki is said to have replied.
In the meantime, Taaki's business partner Donald Norman, who Popper reported fled from the conference after spotting Powell at the first meal, had gone missing. On the last day of the conference, Popper writes: "the accumulated stress hit Amir and he broke down in tears. A friend took him up to a hotel room where he was put in a bed and told to sleep."
The one and only time I've met Taaki was in a squat in London's Hackney Wick last year, when he had recently been named by Forbes as one of the most influential young people in tech and was working on anonymous Bitcoin wallet Dark Wallet. He didn't answer my emails last week, and none of the numbers I have for him are working. On Twitter, several people are asking where he's gone.
Popper last saw him earlier this year, in late winter or early spring: "But then I heard he kind of disappeared. Actually somebody told me: 'Nobody has heard from him.'"
Bitcoin used to need people like Taaki. As Popper puts it in the book: "Bitcoin's survival early on depended on young programmers like Amir who had the naive hubris to think that they could change the world, and the programming skills to begin laying the groundwork for that change."
Now its development is increasingly in the hands of Barclay's, Goldman Sachs, and some powerful venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Banks are opening research labs to examine Bitcoin and its blockchain, and dozens of slick Bitcoin companies are raising big investment.
Is there room in the movement any more for a guy who could have made millions but would rather work open-source, live in squats, and decry the corruption of governments?
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