As they say, life moves fast.
On Monday, the New York Times published a story about a “small group of election deniers” who pushed a “conspiracy theory” 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 personal data about two million poll workers in the United States.”
On Tuesday, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón announced that Eugene Yu, Konnech’s CEO, had been arrested in Michigan “as part of an investigation into the possible theft of personal identifying information of [LA County election] workers” and that the “information was stored on servers in the People’s Republic of China.”
Of course, Gascón asserts that “the alleged conduct had no impact on the tabulation of votes and did not alter election results,” but hard drives were seized by LA District Attorney’s office investigators.
According to the Los Angeles Times:
Prosecutors learned of the data breach earlier this year through a “separate investigation,” according to Gascón. He would not say what the other investigation was or exactly when his office became aware of the breach.
As Gascón’s press release describes:
Konnech distributes and sells its proprietary PollChief software, which is an election worker management system that was utilized by the county in the last California election. The software assists with poll worker assignments, communications and payroll. PollChief requires that workers submit personal identifying information, which is retained by the [sic] Konnech.
Under its $2.9 million, five-year contract with the county, Konnech was supposed to securely maintain the data and that only United States citizens and permanent residents have access to it. District Attorney investigators found that in contradiction to the contract, information was stored on servers in the People’s Republic of China.
The conference the New York Times described as being filled with “election deniers” was sponsored by True the Vote. NYT reporter Stuart Thompson wrote:
Using threadbare evidence, or none at all, 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 personal data about two million poll workers in the United States, according to online accounts from several people at the conference.
Ms. Engelbrecht and Mr. Phillips claimed at 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,” according to the online accounts from people who attended the conference. Once inside, they told attendees, the team downloaded personal information on about 1.8 million poll workers.
According to the NY Times report, Catherine Engelbrecht of True the Vote said she and Gregg Phillips reported their findings to the FBI and that, “According to their story, the agents briefly investigated their claim before turning on the group and questioning whether it had hacked the data.”
Konnech filed suit against True the Vote in Texas for defamation on September 12. In the first paragraph (emphasis mine):
Defendants True the Vote, Inc., its founder and President Catherine Engelbrecht, and board member Gregg Phillips (“Defendants”) have intentionally, repeatedly, and relentlessly attacked Konnech and its founder Eugene Yu with Defendants’ unique brand of racism and xenophobia by their completely baseless claims that Konnech, its founder, and employees are “Chinese operatives,” who are spearheading a “Red Chinese communist op run against the United States,” that Konnech is tied to the Confucius Institute, which Defendants say is part of the Chinese Communist Party, that Konnech was the subject of a long-running FBI counterintelligence investigation, that Konnech obtained contracts with certain U.S. city and county voting districts after bribing public officials, and that the Chinese Communist Party is somehow controlling U.S. elections through Konnech because its founder and some of its employees are of Chinese descent. Defendants’ false accusations of treason, espionage, bribery, and election fraud, which they peddle to enrich themselves at Konnech’s expense, are completely fabricated and constitute defamation per se.
TTV’s “unique brand of racism and xenophobia”? Yu isn’t simply “of Chinese descent.” He was born in China in 1971 and immigrated to the United States in 1986. And, according to the NY Times piece, Konnech’s software was developed and tested in China through a subsidiary, Jinhua Yulian Network Technology. Konnech told the NY Times that its employees “always used ‘generic ‘dummy’ data created specifically for testing purposes'” and that they “closed the subsidiary in 2021 and no longer has employees in China.” Those ties definitely raise suspicion among reasonable people about whether Yu or his companies have been infiltrated by the CCP — whether wittingly or unwittingly.
And, it’s not just the Defendants who claim that the Confucius Institute is a part of the Chinese Communist Party. A US State Department fact sheet (now archived) about the Confucius Institute program states:
The PRC government partially funds these programs, under guidance from the CCP’s United Front Work Department. On August 13, 2020, the Department of State designated the Confucius Institute U.S. Center (CIUS), which serves as the Washington D.C.-based de facto headquarters of the Confucius Institute network, as a foreign mission of the People’s Republic of China.
And, from a 2018 Politico Magazine piece:
But the Confucius Institutes’ goals are a little less wholesome and edifying than they sound—and this is by the Chinese government’s own account. A 2011 speech by a standing member of the Politburo in Beijing laid out the case: “The Confucius Institute is an appealing brand for expanding our culture abroad,” Li Changchun said.
Konnech then states in a verified court pleading — signed under penalty of perjury — that all of their U.S. customer data is stored in the United States.
The truth is that Konnech is a U.S. company founded and operated by a U.S. citizen who has no affiliation with the Chinese Communist Party whatsoever.
All of Konnech’s U.S. customer data is secured and stored exclusively on protected computers located within the United States.
According to DA Gascón, that part about where the data is stored isn’t correct.
DeKalb County, Georgia elections officials recently signed a contract with Konnech despite receiving numerous emails and comments expressing concern about the company’s foreign ties. From NY Times:
After the conspiracy theorists discovered that DeKalb County in Georgia was close to signing a contract with Konnech, officials there received emails and comments about 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 during the county’s elections board meeting.
“We have a lot of questions about this vendor,” Ms. McCarthy said.
The county signed the contract soon after the meeting.
“It’s a completely fabricated issue,” Dele Lowman Smith, the elections board chair, said in an interview. “It’s absolutely bizarre, but it’s part of the tone and tenor of what we’re having to deal with leading up to the elections.”
It’s not a “completely fabricated issue” now, Elections Board Chair Smith.
So, why is Gascón doing what might seem to be the right thing? A few things stood out to me. First, the LA DA’s office seized hard drives that would theoretically store evidence related to information accessed by users in the PRC. Second the sole source, multi-million dollar contract was shepherded through the LA County Board of Supervisors by none other than Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who is under investigation for public corruption/bribery. More will undoubtedly become apparent in the coming days and weeks.