By Suneel Chakravorty
I am a first-generation American and first-born son, born in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. My family is from India.
I graduated from Harvard with a degree in mathematics. After college, I established a software consulting company in New York City.
Starting in October 2016, I took personal growth courses with Executive Success Programs. Then came the international media scandal a year later, and the criminal case. I attended the trial of Keith Raniere.
Child pornography was the severest charge. Allegedly, Keith took 22 nude photos of a 15-year-old. She didn’t testify, so how did they prove she was 15? Something called EXIF data.
EXIF data is information created by the camera and saved inside the digital photo. In short, it’s a birth certificate for the photo. It includes the date and time of the camera’s clock. It includes the make, model, and the camera’s serial number. And camera settings like zoom, flash, etc. If the camera clock is correct and no one changes it, EXIF data tells the creation date – down to the second.
The EXIF data of Camila’s photos had dates in 2005 when she would have been 15. EXIF data was the government’s proof of her age.
For a heinous crime, you should have solid proof. EXIF data is easy to change. I knew that because of my computer background. Many programs make it easy to change EXIF data.
Yet FBI computer forensic examiner Brian Booth testified that EXIF data is difficult to change. When he said that, I thought the government’s expert witness was incompetent or lying. I hoped Raniere’s defense team would pick up on this.
The prosecution argued Keith took the photos in 2005. That’s what the EXIF dates and folder names said.
The prosecution told the jury to trust the EXIF dates, because their FBI expert said it was “the most reliable” data. Keith’s lawyers didn’t punch it hard enough. The prosecution “proved” the most serious charge by a falsehood.
The whole trial seemed surreal. I felt the judge always favored the government. I never saw any instance where he ruled in favor of the defense. Rather than proving serious crimes, the prosecutors brought in salacious evidence and testimony. They dirtied Keith up before the jury. But what stuck with me most was that wrongful testimony. That EXIF data is difficult to change when it isn’t.
After the trial, I decided to visit Keith in prison. I worried that might put me in the line of fire or ruin my reputation, but I decided to show up anyway. We met weekly for a few months about various issues in his trial.
These included the novel way the government charged him with sex trafficking. A single incident of oral sex with two women, with no money changing hands.
In February 2020, Keith and I talked about the alleged contraband. I told him the FBI expert made a wrong statement about EXIF data. Keith said the FBI falsified the evidence.
I believed he might be right, although I did not know we could prove it. We couldn’t get access to the original hard drive. The FBI kept that in their forensic lab, called CART (Computer Analysis Response Team). After the conviction, the government did not have to let Raniere’s defense team see it again.
Keith said he looked through the forensic reports at trial. The other photos – women who were adults in 2005 – were in the wrong directories. Many other things he noticed were wrong.
If the FBI falsified evidence, I wanted to expose that. I had the skill set to help. I got a spreadsheet from the defense counsel. It contained file system data of the hard drive and the camera card. These file system data were where the photos came from. The spreadsheet had the dates and times of the photos. It had the names of the folders and all the other files on the devices. It contained file names (IMG_0083, etc.), dates and times, file sizes, and other metadata. It did not contain any photos or anything sensitive.
Keith also received a copy of the spreadsheet.
We started talking about the spreadsheet. We’re both math people, so we looked for patterns. He found dates and times that didn’t make sense. He asked me to look at them. I found strange patterns in the file data and asked him to look. We went back and forth. Often, I was the devil’s advocate, trying to debunk his theories and find holes in them.
We found breaks in the pattern – or anomalies. Neither of us could find an innocent explanation. We thought these anomalies showed tampering.
I started looking for qualified experts who could look at these anomalies. I wanted them to verify it was tampering or explain it another way.
The initial experts said they couldn’t get involved unless they had the evidence. That would be impossible, so I had to keep looking for someone who could get started with what we had. After I mentioned the FBI tampering, some experts stopped returning my emails. Or they said they had a conflict of interest.
Some findings required an understanding greater than a run-of-the-mill expert. I started looking for top experts in specific subject areas.
I was looking for an expert in “FAT file systems,” which are the file systems found on hard drives and camera cards. A file system is a way to organize files, like photos, on a device. It tells how they get stored, how you retrieve them, how to delete files, etc.
I found an expert in India whose doctoral work was FAT file systems. I asked him to look at the information. He concluded that some findings appeared to support the manual manipulation of dates. The dates did not match anything a user would normally do.
I started looking for US-based experts. I wanted experts who could corroborate or debunk this expert’s findings. From July to October 2020, I found several computer forensics experts to look at the findings. No expert could find an innocent explanation.
Some experts declined to give an opinion beyond that. Others concluded manual manipulation had taken place based on the spreadsheets.
We presented some of these findings in a letter to the judge asking him to adjourn Keith’s sentencing. Nothing happened. The judge sentenced Keith to 120 years.
After the sentencing, I shifted focus. I made sure Keith’s appellate lawyers wrote and filed his appeal. Some months after the sentencing, the Bureau of Prison assigned Keith to USP Tucson. He and I were able to speak again. We restarted the investigation. We discovered more findings that looked like tampering.
I started making calls to experts. We needed experts who wouldn’t be afraid of exposing government corruption. We needed experts who had enough expertise to analyze patterns from a spreadsheet. I came across Dr. James Richard Kiper, Ph.D.
He was one of a handful of experts I emailed or called that day. When I spoke to him, he told me he had retired from the FBI two years prior. I thought Dr. Kiper might not be willing to look at the information because of a pro-FBI bias.
If he saw evidence of tampering and it implicated FBI agents, would he point that out?
He said yes. He told me he loved the FBI but was an FBI whistleblower. He didn’t shy away from pointing out wrongdoing, he said he was a scientist. So, he sticks to the facts. It doesn’t matter who did what. What matters is the data.
Some of Keith’s friends and I paid to retain him. Dr. Kiper was paid his standard rate.
Three or four anomalies pointed to someone manipulating dates and times to look like 2005. There was one part of an anomaly Dr. Kiper debunked. But the rest of the findings, he could not explain as innocent. But he needed to confirm that the spreadsheet matched the actual evidence.
That was in March 2021. Over the next few months, I re-engaged Steve Abrams. He gave a preliminary opinion before Keith’s sentencing. I retained another expert, Wayne Norris.
By May 2021, we had three reputable experts. None of them had a connection with Keith. They were all pro-law enforcement and had never claimed government tampering before. They all said the evidence in the spreadsheet pointed to tampering. To be sure, the experts needed to verify the information with the source evidence.
They signed onto Keith’s defense team and got access to FBI forensic reports of the devices. They got access to a defense copy of the hard drive. This did not have the alleged contraband.
The experts confirmed that the information in the spreadsheet matched the official FBI forensic reports. In addition, it matched the redacted copy of the hard drive.
Over the next ten months, these experts analyzed the evidence and found further evidence of tampering. Meanwhile, I tried to get an attorney to understand this issue. Someone brave enough to go up against the FBI.
Throughout this 2+ year investigation, Keith and I worked over the prison phone line. We were aware that the government could listen at any time. We had nothing to hide. It was imperative to communicate and get to the bottom of this. Unfortunately, his attorneys at that time did not focus on this issue. I’m not sure they believed the FBI faked the evidence or that we could prove it.
The more I saw, though, the more I believed. The experts believed it too. We had three experts who looked at the evidence. All three concluded that tampering had taken place.
We found attorney Joseph Tully. Finally, an attorney who reviewed the evidence and understood and believed it.
That’s where we are now. And we have a motion for a new trial.