This morning, the New York Times reported that investors with the Canadian crytpocurrency exchange Quadriga CX have requested that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police exhume the body of the company’s allegedly deceased CEO, Gerald Cotten, to prove that he’s actually dead. The now-defunct Quadriga worked in a similar manner to Coinbase, allowing people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum without having to go to the trouble of becoming computer geniuses. The company rose to prominence in 2017, as Bitcoin underwent a speculative frenzy that saw its value hit a roughly $20,000 peak; its former CEO is said to have died in December of last year, at a time when the cryptocurrency’s price had receded to less than $4,000.
Quadriga announced Cotten’s death in January of this year and then closed down trading on the platform, shutting customers out of accessing their accounts. According to the Times, “[Customer] balances added up to about $180 million in cryptocurrency and $70 million in Canadian currency.” As to why the company couldn’t just give account-holders their money and call it a day, well, Cotten’s widow stated in an affidavit that her supposedly late husband was the only person with access to a set of physical cryptocurrency wallets where the bulk of users’ assets were stored. (If you’re a company dealing with millions of dollars in cryptocurrency, you only want to keep a small fraction of it in an online wallet for your users to access at any given time to mitigate the effects of a potential hack; think of Quadriga’s physical wallets as a bank’s vault and its online wallet as the cash that the teller keeps in a drawer.) The only problem was, and continues to be, that Cotten ran Quadriga himself through a secure laptop, and now that he’s gone, no one can figure out how to log onto Cotten’s old computer to facilitate the flow of crypto from Quadriga to its former customers.
If this all seems a little bit suspicious to you, you’re not the only one. Conspiracy theories abound that Cotten did not die from complications of Crohn’s disease while doing volunteer work in India, as Quadriga claims, but instead faked his own death and absconded with everybody’s Bitcoins. Hence, the investors’ request, per a letter sent to the RCMP to “conduct an exhumation and post-mortem autopsy on the body of Gerald Cotten to confirm both its identity and the cause of death” in the hopes of achieving “certainty around the question of whether Mr. Cotten is in fact deceased.”
The cryptocurrency world is the kind of place where this isn’t an unreasonable question to ask. Bitcoin itself was created by a pseudonymous entity known as Satoshi Nakamoto, whose identity has never been fully revealed. If you ask me, the smart money’s on Satoshi having been a name adopted by a group of people — one of whom, Dave Kleiman, died, inadvertently taking with him the ability of any member of the Satoshi consortium to publicly prove their involvement with the project. Meanwhile, a Bitcoin evangelist in Durham, NC named Jameson Lopp erased his entire identity after he got “swatted” by trolls, upending his entire life to create a completely anonymous one from scratch. And in 2017, the founder of OneCoin, a scammy cryptocurrency which people briefly believed was going to be the next Bitcoin, took a flight to Athens and was never heard from again. All of this sounds crazy, but, hey, crazy people like to do crazy stuff, and there’s not much that’s crazier than faking your own death.
Before Bitcoin came around, people had kind of stopped disappearing, unless it was for some dumbass journalism thing. But we definitely have living relatives who were born at a time when faking your death must have been, like, the easiest thing! If it was 1948 and you owed the local bookie big-time for placing too big a bet on the ponies, you could just lay some clothes out by the river implying you’d drowned while going for a swim, jump on the back of a train, ride it to a town 10 miles away, and start a new life. If I had been alive back then, I would have done this at least once a year on general principle. Even famous people were faking their deaths way more recently than I’d assume! In 1965, Ken Kesey spent eight months in Mexico after faking his own death, while L. Ron Hubbard lived in hiding for most of 1972, and given that the guy was literally running his own religion at the time, that is a de facto death-fake. No one talks about how we do not fake our own deaths anymore. It is a profound loss for society.
Now, I am not saying that people should start doing the kind of sketchy stuff that would necessitate them feeling the need to fake their own deaths. But there is a certain freedom in the knowledge that you can just up and vanish at any given moment — it means that you’re never trapped by your circumstances, and instead you’re making a conscious decision to be where you are, doing what you’re doing, that you’re invested in the life you’re living.
Right now, only the wealthy can access the levers that one must pull in order to disappear: it’s difficult to completely vanish, but cryptocurrency’s strong encryption measures, as well as its principles of anonymity and privacy, can be applied in ways that help make it possible. Meanwhile, the rest of us leave digital paper trails of nearly everything we do, every day inexorably marching towards our real deaths without ever even being able to consider the option of having a fake one.