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How a small electoral business became a conspiracy theory target

At an invitation-only conference in August at a secret location southeast of Phoenix, a group of election deniers revealed a new conspiracy theory about the 2020 presidential outcome.

Using threaded evidence, or none at all, the group suggested that a small US election software company, Konnech, had secret ties to the Chinese Communist Party and had given the Chinese government backdoor access to personal data on two million workers. elections in the United States. , according to online accounts from several people at the conference.

In the weeks that followed, the conspiracy theory grew as it circulated the Internet. To believers, the claims showed how China had gained almost total control of US elections. Some shared LinkedIn pages for Konnech employees who have Chinese backgrounds and sent threatening emails to the company and its CEO, who was born in China.

“You might want to book flights back to Wuhan before we hang you to death!” one person wrote in an email to the company.

In the two years since former President Donald J. Trump lost his re-election bid, conspiracy theorists have subjected election officials and private companies that play a major role in the election to a barrage of allegations of voter fraud in abroad.

But the attacks on Konnech demonstrate how far-right election deniers are also paying more attention to newer, more secondary companies and groups. His claims often find a receptive online audience, who then use the claims to cast doubt on the integrity of US elections.

Unlike other election technology companies targeted by election deniers, Konnech, a Michigan-based company with 21 employees in the United States and six in Australia, has nothing to do with collecting, counting, or the report of votes in the American elections. Instead, it helps clients like Los Angeles County and Allen County, Indiana with basic election logistics, like scheduling poll workers.

Konnech said none of the allegations were true. He said that all of his American customer data was stored on servers in the United States and that he had no ties to the Chinese government.

But the claims have had consequences for the firm. Konnech’s founder and CEO, Eugene Yu, a US citizen who emigrated from China in 1986, went into hiding with his family after receiving threatening messages. Other employees also feared for his safety and began working remotely after users posted details about Konnech’s headquarters, including the number of cars in the company’s parking lot.

“I have cried,” Mr. Yu wrote in an email. “Apart from the birth of my daughter, I hadn’t cried since kindergarten.”

The company said the order forced it to conduct costly audits and could threaten future deals. She hired Reputation Architects, a public relations and crisis management firm, to help navigate the situation.

After conspiracy theorists discovered that DeKalb County in Georgia was close to signing a contract with Konnech, officials received emails and comments about the company, claiming it had “foreign ties.” County Republican Party Chair Marci McCarthy heard from so many members about Konnech that she echoed parts of the conspiracy theory in a public comment period during the county board of elections meeting.

“We have a lot of questions about this provider,” said Ms. McCarthy.

The county signed the contract shortly after the meeting.

“It’s a completely made up thing,” Dele Lowman Smith, president of the election board, said in an interview. “It’s absolutely bizarre, but it’s part of the tone and the tenor of what we’re going to have to deal with before the election.”

Although Konnech is a new target, people raising questions about the company include some names notorious for spreading election falsehoods.

The recent conference outside of Phoenix was organized by True the Vote, a nonprofit organization founded by prominent election denier Catherine Engelbrecht. She was joined onstage by Gregg Phillips, a voter fraud conspiracy theorist who often works with the group. The pair rose to notoriety this year after appearing in “2000 Mules,” a widely debunked documentary that claims a mysterious army of agents influenced the 2020 presidential election.

Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips claimed at the conference and on live streams that they investigated Konnech in early 2021. Eventually, they said, the group’s team gained access to Konnech’s database by guessing the password, which it was “password,” according to the online site. stories from people who attended the conference. Once inside, attendees were told, the team downloaded personal information on roughly 1.8 million poll workers.

The couple said they had notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation of their findings. According to his story, agents briefly investigated his claim before turning on the group and questioning whether he had hacked the data.

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

Konnech said in a statement that True the Vote’s claim that it had access to a database of 1.8 million poll workers was impossible because, among other reasons, the company had records of fewer than 240,000 poll workers at the time. . And the records of those workers are not kept in a single database.

The company said it had not detected any data breaches but declined to provide details about its technology, citing security concerns.

Konnech once owned Jinhua Yulian Network Technology, a subsidiary outside of China, where programmers developed and tested software. But the company said its employees had always used “generic ‘dummy’ data created specifically for testing purposes.” Konnech closed the subsidiary in 2021 and no longer has employees in China.

Konnech sued True the Vote last month, accusing it of defamation, violation of the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, theft and other charges.

The judge in the case granted Konnech’s request for an emergency temporary restraining order against the group, writing that Konnech faced “irreparable harm” and that there was a risk True the Vote would destroy the evidence. The warrant also required True the Vote to explain how it had allegedly gained access to Konnech’s data.

The vote true, Ms Engelbrecht and Mr Phillips said they could not comment due to a restraining order issued against them.

But in a live broadcast on social media, Engelbrecht said Konnech’s accusations were baseless. “True the Vote looks forward to a public conversation about Konnech’s attempts to silence examination of his activities through litigation,” he said.

Since the restraining order, true to the vote, Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips have told Konnech a new version of their story, changing several important details.

Phillips had explained in a podcast on August 22 that “my analysts” had gained access to the data. But in a letter shared with Konnech’s lawyers, the group claimed they had been approached by a third party who was “not hired or paid by us,” claiming he had Konnech’s data. That person, who was not named except in a sealed court filing, submitted only a “screen share” of “certain elements” of the data. They added that while the group had been provided with a hard drive containing the data, they “didn’t see the content” but instead shared it with the FBI.

“It is true that Vote has never obtained or retained any data as described in your petition,” they wrote. “This is just one of many inaccuracies it contains.”

The lawsuit did little to stop the believers, who continued to attack Konnech. Some employees left the company, citing the stress of the crisis, Yu said. The departures added to the workload among the remaining staff just weeks before the midterm elections.

As True the Vote covered Konnech clients with requests for information last year, Mr. Yu emailed Ms. Engelbrecht offering to help. True, the vote freed up that exchange of emails, including his unredacted email address and phone number, and a host of other company-related documents. That gave conspiracy theorists an easy way to attack Mr. Yu with threatening messages. He now calls the email he sent naive.

“As we investigated further who they were, it became increasingly clear that they had no interest in the truth,” he said. “For them, the truth is an inconvenience.”

Alexandra Berzon contributed report.

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