How a small company that operates in elections became the target of conspiracy theory

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At a conference held in August at a secret location southeast of Phoenix, open to invitation only, a group of deniers proposed a new conspiracy theory about the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election.

Using very weak or non-existent evidence, the group suggested that a small US election software company, Konnech, has secret ties to the Chinese Communist Party and allegedly gave Beijing clandestine access to the personal data of some 2 million poll workers and other election officials. in the United States. The information comes from reports made online by several people attending the conference.

In the following weeks the conspiracy theory grew as it circulated around the internet. For those who believe her, the allegations reveal how China gained near-total control of American elections. Some people shared LinkedIn pages of Konnech employees of Chinese origin and sent email threats to the company and its Chinese-born CEO.

“It might be a good idea to book flights back to Wuhan before we kill you by hanging,” one person wrote in an email to the airline.

In the two years since President Donald Trump lost his re-election bid, conspiracy theories have subjected officials and private companies that play a major role in elections to a coordinated onslaught of outrageous allegations of voter fraud.

But the attacks on Konnech demonstrate how far-right deniers are also paying more attention to new, more secondary companies and groups. Their complaints often find a receptive audience online. This audience then uses the assertions to question the integrity of American elections.

Unlike other election technology firms targeted by election deniers, Konnech, a Michigan-based firm that has 21 employees in the US and six in Australia, has nothing to do with collecting, counting or reporting ballots in US elections. . What she does is help clients like Los Angeles County and Allen County, Indiana, with basic election logistics, such as organizing poll workers’ work schedules.

Konnech said none of the allegations were substantiated. He said that all data for his US customers is stored on servers in the country and that he has no ties to the Chinese government.

But the allegations had consequences for the firm. Konnech founder and CEO Eugene Yu is an American citizen who migrated from China in 1986. After receiving threatening messages, he went into hiding with his family.

After netizens posted information online about Konnech’s headquarters, including the number of cars in the company’s parking lot, other employees also feared for their physical integrity and began working remotely. “I cried,” Yu wrote in an email.

The company said the ordeal forced it to undergo expensive audits and could put future business at risk. To help it deal with the situation, Konnech hired Reputation Architects, a public relations and crisis management firm.

Konnech is a new target, but people who have raised doubts about it include some who are already notorious for spreading electoral lies.

The recent conference outside Phoenix was hosted by the nonprofit True the Vote, founded by well-known denialist Catherine Engelbrecht. Beside him on stage was Gregg Phillips, also a popular voter fraud conspiracy theorist who frequently works with the organization.

Engelbrecht and Phillips rose to prominence this year after appearing in “2000 Mules,” a widely debunked documentary that alleges a mysterious army of agents influenced the 2020 US presidential election.

At the conference and in lives, the two said that they had already investigated Konnech in early 2021. They said that the True the Vote team ended up gaining access to Konnech’s database by guessing the password, which was “password” (password) , according to online reports from people who attended the conference. After penetrating the database, they told the audience, the team downloaded personal data on 1.8 million poll workers and other election officials.

The two said they notified the FBI of their discovery. According to them, FBI agents quickly investigated their claim and then turned against True the Vote and asked if it had stolen the data.

The FBI press office said the agency “does not comment on reports or information we may or may not receive from the public.”

In a press release, Konnech said that True the Vote’s claim to have had access to a database of 1.8 million election officials is impossible because, among other reasons, the company had data on fewer than 240,000 employees. in season. And data relating to these employees is not stored in a single database.

The company said it did not detect any irregular access to the data, but declined to provide details about its technology, citing security concerns.

Konnech has in the past owned Chinese subsidiary Jinhua Yulian Network Technology, where programmers developed and tested software. But the company said its employees at Jinhua always used data “general ‘fictitious’ data created specifically for use in testing”. Konnech closed the subsidiary in 2021 and no longer has employees in China.

Last month, Konnech filed a lawsuit against True the Vote, charging it with defamation, violation of the federal Fraud and Digital Abuse Act, theft and other charges.

The judge granted Konnech’s request for a temporary restraining order against the NGO, writing that the company faces “irreparable harm” and that there is a risk that True the Vote will destroy evidence. The warrant also required the NGO to explain how it had allegedly accessed the company’s data.

True the Vote, Engelbrecht and Phillips said they could not make statements because of the restraining order against them.

The lawsuit did not discourage people who believed in the conspiracy theory and continued to attack Konnech. According to Yu, some employees have left the company, citing the stress brought on by the crisis. Their departures added to the workload of the remaining professionals, with just weeks to go before the midterm elections in November.

Last year, when True the Vote flooded Konnech’s customers with requests for information, Yu emailed Engelbrecht offering his help. The NGO released this email exchange, including Yu’s phone number and email address, as well as a number of other documents linked to the company. This gave the theory’s disseminators an easy way to attack you with threatening messages. Today Yu says he was naive for sending that email.

“As we dig deeper into who they were, it became increasingly clear that they had no interest in the truth,” he said. “For them, the truth is inconvenient.”

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