By JOSEPH MACKINNON | October 05, 2022
On October 3, the New York Times’ Stuart Thompson criticized so-called “far-right election deniers” for a “conspiracy theory” alleging that Konnech, an election software company based in East Lansing, Michigan, had “secret ties to the Chinese Communist Party and had given the Chinese government backdoor access to personal data about two million poll workers in the United States.” Thompson, a “misinformation and disinformation” reporter, suggested that these claims, which allegedly made the CEO of the company cry, were used to “raise doubts about the integrity of American elections.”
The NY Times piece ended in a quote from the company’s 51-year-old Chinese-born CEO, Eugene Yu: “They had no interest in the truth. … The truth is inconvenient.”
On October 4, Konnech CEO Eugene Yu was arrested on suspicion of theft of personal identifying information and computer hard drives.
In a statement issued after Yu’s arrest, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón said, “Data breaches are an ongoing threat to our digital way of life. When we entrust a company to hold our confidential data, they must be willing and able to protect our personal identifying information from theft. Otherwise, we are all victims”
According to Gascón’s office, while Konnech was required to store sensitive election-related data in the United States and only make it accessible to citizens and permanent residents, the company had stored data on servers in China.
True the Vote, a Texas-based nonprofit founded in 2009 with a mandate to bolster election integrity, was sued by Konnech last month for defamation, after True the Vote claimed the company was guilty of that for which Yu has now been arrested.
On Tuesday, True the Vote issued a statement, saying, “Konnech CEO Eugene Yu was arrested based on alleged evidence of the very activities he and his organization attempted to suppress.”
True the Vote, tarred by Thompson as “far-right election deniers” and “conspiracy theorists,” added, “Konnech was assisted by many reporters who unblinkingly accepted their now discredited claims as fact, and simply repeated them.”
Yu was arrested in Meridian Township in Michigan with the assistance of the East Lansing Police and the Ingham County sheriff’s office. Investigators dispatched by the LA DA’s office seized computer hard drives and other “digital evidence” relevant to the charges. The DA’s office is seeking Yu’s extradition to Los Angeles.
Gascón noted that the investigation was concerned with the personal identifying information of election workers and assured that Yu’s alleged criminal conduct “had no impact on the tabulation of votes and did not alter election results.”
Konnech sells a proprietary software called PollChief, an election worker management system. It was used by Los Angeles County in the last California election, where it has a five-year, $2.9 million contract. Its software requires election workers to submit personal identifying information. Konnech retains that information.
According Konnech’s lawsuit, the company holds other contracts nationwide. The company previously claimed that all of its data was stored on servers in the United States. The NY Times reported that, according to Konnech, the company had “no ties to the Chinese government.” However, Gascón suggested that Konnech had “allegedly violated its contract by storing critical information that the workers provided on servers in China,” where Yu had lived until 1986. Gascón added, “We intend to hold all those responsible for this breach accountable.”
The LA Times reported that prosecutors learned of the data breach through a “separate investigation.”
In the statement it released after Yu’s arrest, True the Vote noted that it was “honored to have played a small role in what must have been a wide ranging and complex investigation.” The organization’s founder, Catherine Engelbrecht, said, “Election integrity should not be a partisan issue, nor should media try to suppress all conversation about it in a way that benefits one party.” Engelbrecht added that True the Vote “will continue to report evidence of threats to our election process and work with law enforcement to ensure our elections are a secure space for all American voters.”
When working with a cyber analyst in 2021, Engelbrecht and True the Vote’s Gregg Phillips reportedly found “an oddity in some of the URLs” related to PollChief’s data gathering. After determining that some of the URLs resolved in a Chinese IP address and concluding that “this was a major national security risk,” they took the information to the FBI. The FBI allegedly “said the information was forwarded to their counter-intelligence operation, and a counter-intelligence op was opened up in January or February of 2021.” It is unclear if Tuesday’s arrest was the result of that alleged investigation.
Konnech Inc. filed a defamation lawsuit against True the Vote on September 12, suggesting that the group’s accusations of wrongdoing were damaging and would prove “particularly problematic in light of the upcoming 2022 midterm elections, for which Konnech has contracts to provide election logistics software for voting districts across the country.” The lawsuit suggested that True the Vote and its leaders “falsely claimed that they discovered that Konnech had an unsecured server located in Wuhan, China.”
The lawsuit stated, “Defendants have falsely accused Konnech of storing sensitive and personal data—including social security numbers, email addresses, phone numbers, and banking information—on 1.8 million U.S. poll workers on servers in China.”
It also emphasized that “Konnech does not, and has never, stored any actual customer or poll worker data on any server in China as Defendants falsely claim.”
Konnech and members of the media who reported on the lawsuit suggested that True the Vote leaders’ intimations that Yu may have been cooperating with Chinese communists were racist and xenophobic and that the claim Yu was spearheading a “Red Chinese communist op run against the United States” was not an expression of geopolitical concern but of bigotry.
Last month, Judge Kenneth Hoyt of the U.S. District Court granted Konnech’s request for a temporary restraining order against Engelbrecht and Phillips, finding that the company would “suffer irreparable injury” without it. The defamation lawsuit is likely to be affected in the event of Yu’s conviction.
The New York Times has come under fire for boldly parroting the Konnech CEO’s claims a day before his arrest. The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway wrote, “I have never seen anything age this poorly, this quickly.”
Thompson has kept his discredited article pinned to his Twitter page.