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How a Tiny Elections Company Became a Conspiracy Theory Goal

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At an invitation-only conference in August at a secret location southeast of Phoenix, a bunch of election deniers unspooled a recent conspiracy theory in regards to the 2020 presidential end result.

Using threadbare evidence, or none in any respect, the group suggested that a small American election software company, Konnech, had secret ties to the Chinese Communist Party and had given the Chinese government backdoor access to non-public data about two million poll staff in the US, in line with online accounts from several people on the conference.

In the following weeks, the conspiracy theory grew because it shot across the web. To believers, the claims showed how China had gained near complete control of America’s elections. Some shared LinkedIn pages for Konnech employees who’ve Chinese backgrounds and sent threatening emails to the corporate and its chief executive, who was born in China.

“Might need to book flights back to Wuhan before we hang you until dead!” one person wrote in an email to the corporate.

Within the two years since former President Donald J. Trump lost his re-election bid, conspiracy theorists have subjected election officials and personal corporations that play a serious role in elections to a barrage of outlandish voter fraud claims.

However the attacks on Konnech exhibit how far-right election deniers are also giving more attention to recent and more secondary corporations and groups. Their claims often discover a receptive online audience, which then uses the assertions to lift doubts in regards to the integrity of American elections.

Unlike other election technology corporations targeted by election deniers, Konnech, an organization based in Michigan with 21 employees in the US and 6 in Australia, has nothing to do with collecting, counting or reporting ballots in American elections. As a substitute, it helps clients like Los Angeles County and Allen County, Ind., with basic election logistics, equivalent to scheduling poll staff.

Konnech said not one of the accusations were true. It said that each one the info for its American customers were stored on servers in the US and that it had no ties to the Chinese government.

However the claims have had consequences for the firm. Konnech’s founder and chief executive, Eugene Yu, an American citizen who immigrated from China in 1986, went into hiding along with his family after receiving threatening messages. Other employees also feared for his or her safety and began working remotely, after users posted details about Konnech’s headquarters, including the variety of cars in the corporate’s car parking zone.

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

With the primaries over, each parties are shifting their focus to the final election on Nov. 8.

The corporate said the ordeal had forced it to conduct costly audits and will threaten future deals. It hired Repute Architects, a public relations and crisis management company, to assist navigate the situation.

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

“We’ve got loads of questions on this vendor,” Ms. McCarthy said.

The county signed the contract soon after the meeting.

“It’s a totally fabricated issue,” Dele Lowman Smith, the elections board chair, said in an interview. “It’s absolutely bizarre, nevertheless it’s a part of the tone and tenor of what we’re having to take care of leading as much as the elections.”

Although Konnech is a recent goal, the people raising questions on the corporate include some names notorious for spreading election falsehoods.

The recent conference outside Phoenix was organized by True the Vote, a nonprofit founded by the outstanding election denier Catherine Engelbrecht. She was joined onstage by Gregg Phillips, an election fraud conspiracy theorist who often works with the group. The pair achieved notoriety this 12 months after being featured in “2000 Mules,” a widely debunked documentary claiming that a mysterious army of operatives influenced the 2020 presidential election.

Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips claimed on the conference and in livestreams 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 was “password,” in line with the net accounts from individuals who attended the conference. Once inside, they told attendees, the team downloaded personal information on about 1.8 million poll staff.

The pair said they’d notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation of their findings. In accordance with their story, the agents briefly investigated their claim before turning on the group and questioning whether it had hacked the info.

The F.B.I.’s press office said the agency “doesn’t comment on complaints or suggestions we may or may not receive from the general public.”

Konnech said in an announcement that True the Vote’s claim it had access to a database of 1.8 million poll staff was inconceivable because, amongst other reasons, the corporate had records on fewer than 240,000 poll staff on the time. And the records on those staff aren’t kept on a single database.

The corporate said it had not detected any data breach, but declined to offer details about its technology, citing security concerns.

Konnech once owned Jinhua Yulian Network Technology, a subsidiary out of China, where programmers developed and tested software. But the corporate said its employees there had at all times used “generic ‘dummy’ data created specifically for testing purposes.” Konnech closed the subsidiary in 2021 and not 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 within 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 that True the Vote would destroy evidence. The order also required True the Vote to elucidate the way it had supposedly gained access to Konnech’s data.

True the Vote, Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips said they might not comment due to a restraining order issued against them.

But in a livestream on social media, Ms. Engelbrecht said the allegations by Konnech were meritless. “True the Vote looks forward to a public conversation about Konnech’s attempts to silence examination of its activities through litigation,” she said.

For the reason that restraining order, True the Vote, Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips have told Konnech a new edition of their story, changing several necessary details.

Mr. Phillips had explained in a podcast on Aug. 22 that “my analysts” had gained access to the info. But in a letter shared with Konnech’s lawyers, the group claimed that a 3rd party who “was not contracted to us or paid by us” had approached them, claiming it had Konnech’s data. That person, who was unnamed except in a sealed court filing, presented only a “screen share” of “certain elements” of the info. They added that while the group had been supplied with a harddrive containing the info, they “didn’t view the contents,” as an alternative sharing it with the F.B.I.

“True the Vote has never obtained or held any data as described in your petition,” they wrote. “That is just considered one of many inaccuracies contained therein.”

The lawsuit did little to slow believers, who continued attacking Konnech. Some employees left the corporate, citing stress from the crisis, Mr. Yu said. The departures added to the workload amongst remaining staff just a number of weeks before the midterm election.

As True the Vote blanketed Konnech’s customers with information requests last 12 months, Mr. Yu sent an email to Ms. Engelbrecht offering his help. True the Vote released that email exchange, including his unredacted email address and phone number, and a trove of other documents related to the corporate. That gave conspiracy theorists a straightforward solution to goal Mr. Yu with threatening messages. He now calls the e-mail he sent naïve.

“As we did more research into who they were, it became increasingly more clear that they’d no real interest in the reality,” he said. “For them, the reality is inconvenient.”

Alexandra Berzon contributed reporting.

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