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Hunting for Voter Fraud, Conspiracy Theorists Organize ‘Stakeouts’

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One night last month, on the recommendation of a man known online as Captain K, a small group gathered in an Arizona parking lot and waited in folding chairs, hoping to catch the people they believed were trying to destroy American democracy by submitting fake early voting ballots.

Captain K — which is what Seth Keshel, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer who espouses voting fraud conspiracy theories, calls himself — had set the plan in motion. In July, as states like Arizona were preparing for their primary elections, he posted a proposal on the messaging app Telegram: “All-night patriot tailgate parties for EVERY DROP BOX IN AMERICA.” The post received more than 70,000 views.

Similar calls were galvanizing people in at least nine other states, signaling the latest outgrowth from rampant election fraud conspiracy theories coursing through the Republican Party.

In the nearly two years since former President Donald J. Trump catapulted false claims of widespread voter fraud from the political fringes to the conservative mainstream, a constellation of his supporters have drifted from one theory to another in a frantic but unsuccessful search for evidence.

Many are now focused on ballot drop boxes — where people can deposit their votes into secure and locked containers — under the unfounded belief that mysterious operatives, or so-called ballot mules, are stuffing them with fake ballots or otherwise tampering with them. And they are recruiting observers to monitor countless drop boxes across the country, tapping the millions of Americans who have been swayed by bogus election claims.

In most cases, organizing efforts are nascent, with supporters posting unconfirmed plans to watch local drop boxes. But some small-scale “stakeouts” have been advertised using Craigslist, Telegram, Twitter, Gab and Truth Social, the social media platform backed by Mr. Trump. Several websites dedicated to the cause went online this year, including at least one meant to coordinate volunteers.

Some high-profile politicians have embraced the idea. Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed Republican candidate for governor in Arizona, asked followers on Twitter whether they would “be willing to take a shift watching a drop box to catch potential Ballot Mules.”

Supporters have compared the events to harmless neighborhood watches or tailgate parties fueled by pizza and beer. But some online commenters discussed bringing AR-15s and other firearms, and have voiced their desire to make citizens’ arrests and log license plates. That has set off concerns among election officials and law enforcement that what supporters describe as legal patriotic oversight could easily slip into illegal voter intimidation, privacy violations, electioneering or confrontations.

“What we’re going to be dealing with in 2022 is more of a citizen corps of conspiracists that have already decided that there’s a problem and are now looking for evidence, or at least something they can twist into evidence, and use that to undermine confidence in results they don’t like,” said Matthew Weil, the executive director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “When your entire premise is that there are problems, every issue looks like a problem, especially if you have no idea what you’re looking at.”

Credit…Screenshot from Truth Social

Mr. Keshel, whose post as Captain K inspired the Arizona gathering, said in an interview that monitoring drop boxes could catch illegal “ballot harvesting,” or voters depositing ballots for other people. The practice is legal in some states, like California, but is mostly illegal in battlegrounds like Georgia and Arizona. There is no evidence that widespread illegal ballot harvesting occurred in the 2020 presidential election.

“In order to quality-control a process that is ripe for cheating, I suppose there’s no way other than monitoring,” Mr. Keshel said. “In fact, they have monitoring at polling stations when you go up, so I don’t see the difference.”

The legality of monitoring the boxes is hazy, Mr. Weil said. Laws governing supervision of polling places — such as whether watchers may document voters entering or exiting — differ across states and have mostly not been adapted to ballot boxes.

In 2020, election officials embraced ballot boxes as a legal solution to socially distanced voting during the coronavirus pandemic. All but 10 states allowed them.

But many conservatives have argued that the boxes enable election fraud. The talk has been egged on by “2000 Mules,” a documentary by the conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza, which uses leaps of logic and dubious evidence to claim that an army of partisan “mules” traveled between ballot boxes and stuffed them with fraudulent votes. The documentary proved popular on the Republican campaign trail and among right-wing commentators, who were eager for novel ways to keep doubts about the 2020 election alive.

“Ballot mules” have quickly become a central character in false stories about the 2020 election. Between November 2020 and the first reference to “2000 Mules” on Twitter in January 2022, the term “ballot mules” came up only 329 times, according to data from Zignal Labs. Since then, the term has surfaced 326,000 times on Twitter, 63 percent of the time alongside discussion of the documentary. Salem Media Group, the executive producer of the documentary, claimed in May that the film had earned more than $10 million.

The push for civilian oversight of ballot boxes has gained traction at the same time as legislative efforts to boost surveillance of drop-off sites. A state law passed this year in Utah requires 24-hour video surveillance to be installed at all unattended ballot boxes, an often challenging undertaking that has cost taxpayers in one county hundreds of thousands of dollars. County commissioners in Douglas County in Nebraska, which includes Omaha, voted in June to allocate $130,000 for drop box cameras to supplement existing cameras that the county does not own.

In June, Arizona lawmakers approved a budget that included $500,000 for a pilot program for ballot box monitoring. The 16 boxes included will have round-the-clock photo and video surveillance, rejecting ballots if the cameras are nonfunctional, and will accept only a single ballot at a time, producing receipts for each ballot submitted.

Many supporters of the stakeouts have argued that drop boxes should be banned entirely. Some have posted video tours of drop box sites, claiming that cameras are pointed in the wrong direction or that the locations cannot be properly secured.

Melody Jennings, a minister and counselor who founded the right-wing group Clean Elections USA, claimed credit for the Arizona gathering on Truth Social and said it was the group’s “first run.” She said in a podcast interview that any surveillance teams she organized would try to record all voters who used drop boxes. The primaries, she said, were a “dry run” for the midterms in November. Ms. Jennings did not respond to requests for comment.

After the Arizona gathering, organizers wrote to high-profile Truth Social users, including Mr. Trump, claiming without evidence that “mules came to the site, saw the party and left without dropping ballots.” Comments on other social media posts about the event noted that the group could have frightened away voters wary of engaging, drawn people planning to report the group’s activities or simply witnessed lost passers-by.

On Aug. 2, Ms. Lake and several other election deniers prevailed in their primary races in Arizona, where a GoFundMe campaign sought donations for “a statewide volunteer citizen presence on location 24 hours a day at each public voting drop box location.” Kelly Townsend, a Republican state senator, said during a legislative hearing in May that people would train “hidden trail cameras” on ballot boxes and follow suspected fraudsters to their cars and record their license plate numbers.

“I have been so pleased to hear about all you vigilantes out there that want to camp out at these drop boxes,” Ms. Townsend said.

Surveillance plans are also forming in other states. Audit the Vote Hawaii posted that citizens there were “pulling together watch teams” to monitor the drop boxes. A similar group in Pennsylvania, Audit the Vote PA, posted on social media that they should do the same.

In Michigan, a shaky video filmed from inside a car and posted on Truth Social showed what appeared to be a man collecting ballots from a drop box. It ended with a close-up shot of a truck’s license plate.

In Washington, a right-wing group launched Drop Box Watch, a scheduling service helping people organize stakeouts, encouraging them to take photos or videos of any “anomalies.” The group’s website said all its volunteer slots for the state’s primary early this month were filled.

The sheriff’s office in King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, is investigating after election signs popped up at several drop box sites in the state warning voters they were “under surveillance.”

One Gab user with more than 2,000 followers offered stakeout tips on the social network and on Rumble: “Get their face clearly on camera, we don’t want no fuzzy Bigfoot film,” he said in a video, with his own face covered by a helmet, goggles and cloth. “We need to put that in the Gab group, so there’s a constant log of what’s going on.”

Calls for civilian surveillance have expanded beyond ballot boxes. One post on a conservative blog cheers on people who monitor “any suspect activities before, during and after elections” at ballot-printing companies, vote tabulation centers and candidates’ offices.

Paul Gronke, the director of the Elections and Voting Information Center at Reed College, suggested that activists hoping for improved election security should push for more data transparency measures and tracking programs that allow voters to monitor the status of their absentee ballot. He said he had never heard of a legitimate example of dropbox watchdogs successfully catching fraud.

The prospect of confrontations involving self-appointed overseers largely untrained in state-specific election procedures, charged up by a steady diet of misinformation and militarized rhetoric, is “just a recipe for disaster” and “puts at risk the voters’ ability to cast their ballots,” Mr. Gronke said.

“There are ways to secure the system, but having vigilantes standing around drop boxes is not the way to do it,” he said. “Drop boxes are not a concern — it’s just a misdirection of energy.”

Cecilia Kang contributed reporting.

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Meta’s making it easier to report bugs in its Horizon VR app

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Meta has updated Horizon Worlds, its main virtual reality / “metaverse” app, to make it easier to report bugs. If you see something going wrong while using the app, you can now press and hold the A, B, X, and Y buttons on your controllers to bring up the “report a problem” window, where you can also attach a screenshot showing what went wrong.

If the experience seems familiar, it may be because it’s been in testing for a while; according to Meta spokesperson Kelsi Horn, there were early tests available to “a subset of creators” as far back as April 2021. Since then, according to Horn, Meta has improved the UI and is now rolling it out to everyone. Horn added that “bugs reported through this tool are individually triaged by members of the Horizon Worlds team,” so it seems like Meta’s definitely trying to pay attention to the reports.

That’s not necessarily a surprise. In the blog post announcing the update, Meta admits that a competition it ran in the app couldn’t be fairly judged because “the platform was unstable and had too many bugs near the end of the competition.” A recent report from my colleague Alex Heath reveals that Horizon’s bugginess has been a sore spot within the company; the team behind it is in a “quality lockdown” for the rest of 2022 to iron out the bugs before more people start using the app (early this year, Alex reported that it had around 300,000 monthly users). In a memo, Meta’s VP of metaverse, Vishal Shah, told employees: “feedback from our creators, users, playtesters, and many of us on the team is that the aggregate weight of papercuts, stability issues, and bugs is making it too hard for our community to experience the magic of Horizon.”

Meta is also making it a priority for its employees to actually start using Horizon — “everyone in this organization should make it their mission to fall in love with Horizon Worlds,” Shah wrote, questioning why the team who built the app doesn’t spend more time in it themselves.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg, whose vision has largely driven the company’s metaverse efforts, has promised to share details about “major updates to Horizon and avatar graphics” at the company’s Connect conference on October 11th. The company’s also set to announce its next-gen headset, the Quest Pro, which seemingly leaked in spectacular fashion last month. Of course, new graphics and new hardware could mean a host of new bugs as well, so this upgrade to the reporting system is well-timed.

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Former Uber Security Chief Found Guilty of Hiding Hack From Authorities

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Joe Sullivan, the former Uber security chief, was found guilty on Wednesday by a jury in federal court on charges that he did not disclose a breach of customer and driver records to government regulators.

In 2016, while the Federal Trade Commission was investigating Uber over an earlier breach of its online systems, Mr. Sullivan learned of a new breach that affected the Uber accounts of more than 57 million riders and drivers.

The jury found Mr. Sullivan guilty on one count of obstructing the F.T.C.’s investigation and one count of misprision, or acting to conceal a felony from authorities.

The case — believed to be the first time a company executive faced criminal prosecution over a hack — could change how security professionals handle data breaches.

“The way responsibilities are divided up is going to be impacted by this. What’s documented is going to be impacted by this. The way bug bounty programs are designed is going to be impacted by this,” said Chinmayi Sharma, a scholar in residence at the Robert Strauss Center for International Security and Law and a lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

Mr. Sullivan’s trial concluded on Friday, and the jury of six men and six women took more than 19 hours to reach a verdict.

“While we obviously disagree with the jury’s verdict, we appreciate their dedication and effort in this case,” said David Angeli, a lawyer for Mr. Sullivan. “Mr. Sullivan’s sole focus — in this incident and throughout his distinguished career — has been ensuring the safety of people’s personal data on the internet.”

Stephanie M. Hinds, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, said in a statement: “We will not tolerate concealment of important information from the public by corporate executives more interested in protecting their reputation and that of their employers than in protecting users. Where such conduct violates the federal law, it will be prosecuted.”

Uber did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Sullivan was deposed by the F.T.C. as it investigated a 2014 breach of Uber’s online systems. Ten days after the deposition, he received an email from a hacker who claimed to have found another security vulnerability in its systems.

Mr. Sullivan learned that the hacker and an accomplice had downloaded the personal data of about 600,000 Uber drivers and additional personal information associated with 57 million riders and drivers, according to court testimony and documents. The hackers pressured Uber to pay them at least $100,000.

Mr. Sullivan’s team referred them to Uber’s bug bounty program, a way of paying “white hat” researchers to report security vulnerabilities. The program capped payouts at $10,000, according to court testimony and documents. Mr. Sullivan and his team paid the hackers $100,000 and had them sign a nondisclosure agreement.

During his testimony, one of the hackers, Vasile Mereacre, said he was trying to extort money from Uber.

Uber did not publicly disclose the incident or inform the F.T.C. until a new chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, joined the company in 2017. The two hackers pleaded guilty to the hack in October 2019.

States typically require companies to disclose breaches if hackers download personal data and a certain number of users are affected. There is no federal law requiring companies or executives to reveal breaches to regulators.

Federal prosecutors argued that Mr. Sullivan knew that revealing the new hack would extend the F.T.C. investigation and hurt his reputation and that he concealed the hack from the F.T.C.

“He took many steps to keep the F.T.C. and others from finding out about it,” Benjamin Kingsley, an assistant U.S. attorney, said during closing arguments on Friday. “This was a deliberate withholding and concealing of information.”

Mr. Sullivan did not reveal the 2016 hack to Uber’s general counsel, according to court testimonies and documents. He did discuss the breach with another Uber lawyer, Craig Clark.

Like Mr. Sullivan, Mr. Clark was fired by Mr. Khosrowshahi after the new chief executive learned about the details of the breach. Mr. Clark was given immunity by federal prosecutors in exchange for testifying against Mr. Sullivan.

Mr. Clark testified that Mr. Sullivan had told the Uber security team that they needed to keep the breach secret and that Mr. Sullivan had changed the nondisclosure agreement signed by the hackers to make it falsely seem that the hack was white-hat research.

Mr. Sullivan said he would discuss the breach with Uber’s “A Team” of top executives, according to Mr. Clark’s testimony. He shared the matter with only one member of the A Team: the chief executive at the time, Travis Kalanick. Mr. Kalanick approved the $100,000 payment to the hackers, according to court documents.

Lawyers for Mr. Sullivan argued that he had merely been doing his job.

They argued that Mr. Sullivan and others had used the bug bounty program and the nondisclosure agreement to prevent user data from being leaked — and to identify the hackers — and that Mr. Sullivan had not concealed the incident from the F.T.C.

After the trial, one of the jurors, Joel Olson, said that the extensive array of documents presented by the lawyers in the case, including edits to the nondisclosure agreement, made it clear that Mr. Sullivan had hidden the breach from authorities. “It was all dated and timed and documented very clearly,” he said.

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What to expect from the Microsoft Surface launch event

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We’re crawling ever closer to finding out what new products will be announced at Microsoft’s Surface event, set to take place on October 12th at 10AM ET. Microsoft’s Surface range encompasses phones, laptops, hybrid 2-in-1 tablets, and desktop computers, so there’s a good variety of hardware that could make an appearance. 

While we can make a few safe assumptions regarding what will and won’t be shown off (we’re sadly not anticipating a new Surface Duo foldable), Microsoft may still have a few surprises in store, given that this year marks the 10th anniversary of Microsoft’s first-ever Surface product that was released back in October 2012. 

Here’s everything we’re looking forward to at the upcoming Microsoft Surface launch event.

The Surface Pro X is (allegedly) dead: long live the Surface Pro 9 

The Surface Pro range is one of Microsoft’s most consistent yearly releases, so when the Surface Pro 9 was spotted in a recently published FCC document, it was safe to assume it has an imminent arrival. As the Surface Pro 8 made some pretty significant updates over its predecessor (including a larger display, 120Hz refresh rate, and Thunderbolt ports), the Surface Pro 9 isn’t expected to receive any mind-blowing updates this generation.

WinFuture anticipates that it’ll ship with a choice of Intel 12th Generation Core i5 or Core i7 U-series chips, which should result in a performance boost of around 20 percent when compared to the equivalent 11th Gen processors in the Surface Pro 8. Much like its predecessor, we believe the Surface Pro 9 will be available in 8GB, 16GB, and 32GB RAM options and 128GB, 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB storage configurations. 

If you’re hoping the Surface Pro 9 will have a fresh new look… keep hoping. It’s highly unlikely.
Photo by Becca Farsace / The Verge

There’s no word on updates to ports, but several rumors do suggest we’ll be getting new blue and green color options on top of the usual black and silver offerings.

The Surface Pro 9 might also spell the end of the line for another Microsoft product, the ARM-based Surface Pro X. Windows Central reports that the Surface Pro 9 will offer both Intel and ARM options under a single product line. The ARM variant would be powered by the Microsoft SQ3, a custom Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 SoC, and it’s likely to be the first Surface PC to ship with 5G.

Pricing, frankly, is anyone’s guess right now. If the Surface Pro 9 does include ARM-based configurations, then prices could start as low as $899.99, the entry-level pricing for the base Surface Pro X configuration. But if Microsoft decides to ignore that the Arm-based Surface Pro X was cheaper than the Surface Pro 8, it could be significantly more expensive. The base model Surface Pro 8 retailed for $1,099, a whopping $250 more than the equivalent Surface Pro 7. It’s also worth remembering that Microsoft doesn’t typically include Type Covers with its Surface Pro products, either, so expect to add an additional $129.99 to your basket should prices remain the same for the Surface Pro 9 compatible covers.

The Surface Laptop 5 could get minor generational upgrades

The Surface Laptop 5 could make an appearance at the Microsoft event, given it’s due for a refresh with the Surface Laptop 4 having hit the market back in April 2021. We use “refresh” generously here, as, like the Surface Pro 9, we’re not actually anticipating any major changes beyond generational updates.

“Sage green” is rumored to be a new color option available for the Surface Laptop 5

WinFuture reported on some information allegedly supplied by retailers who claim 13-inch and 15-inch versions of the Surface Laptop 5 will be available, containing a choice of Core i5-1235U and Core i7-1255U processors. Both the battery and overall design are apparently unchanged from the previous Surface Laptop generation, though a new green color option could add some fresh variety to the existing black, blue, silver, and pink offerings currently available.

Like the Surface Laptop 4, SSD storage probably won’t be increased from the 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB options currently offered, and memory will likely still be available in either 8GB, 16GB, or 32GB configurations; however, we could see LPDDR4x updated to the new faster LPDDR5x standard.

The Surface Laptop Go angled slightly to the left.

The Surface Laptop 5 is likely to look near identical to its predecessor, the Surface Laptop 4.
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

If you’re hoping for an AMD-powered model, then you’re likely out of luck. There have been no mentions of such a configuration across any FCC filing or reputable leak for this generation, suggesting that Microsoft might be dropping Ryzen CPUs for this generation of Surface Laptops altogether. Regardless of what processors are available, it’s highly unlikely the Surface Laptop 5 will be equipped with a dedicated GPU, but Intel’s integrated Xe graphics should be more than capable for most everyday tasks.

A few updates that we’d like to see would be an improved webcam, boosting the current 720p camera to a full HD 1080p resolution to be more in line with rival laptop offers like the M2-powered MacBook Air. Boosting the current 60Hz display to 120Hz would also be a nice upgrade, and it’s not too farfetched an idea given that both the Surface Pro 8 and Surface Laptop Studio already rock a 120Hz PixelSense Flow display. At least one website seemingly confirms that both of these updates will, in fact, make an appearance (and leaks what appears to be the entire spec sheet for the laptop), but given that’s the only thing posted on the site… well, better to not get our expectations too high.

Reports suggest the Surface Laptop 5 could be more affordable than previous-gen models

Pricing leaks for the US market have been non-existent, but we could be getting some good news from overseas. WinFuture’s retail sources claim that the Surface Laptop 5 pricing in Europe will start from €1,200 for the base 13.5-inch model (down from €1,499 on the equivalent Surface Laptop 4), with the larger 15-inch model starting from €1,500 (down from €1,999). For context, US pricing for the base Surface Laptop 4 was $899 for the base 13.5-inch model and $1,299 for the 15-inch model, respectively, so there’s a chance we could see prices drop to around $799 and $1,199 for each sizing configuration of the Surface Laptop 5. There’s no guarantee that the latest model will be more affordable than its predecessor, but Microsoft does have some catching up to do if it wants to remain competitive with Apple’s MacBook Air pricing.

Are we finally getting the Surface Studio 3?

One of the most highly anticipated products we’re expecting to see is the Studio Surface 3, an all-in-one desktop computer designed for creative professionals. An FCC document from Microsoft describes an “All-in-one Desktop Computer” that is speculated to be a new Surface device, and leaks of the updated Surface Keyboard and Surface Pen earlier this year heavily suggest that Microsoft is preparing to announce the Surface Studio 3 later this month.

Microsoft Surface Studio 3 being tested

Is that a Surface Studio 2? Nope. Apparently, the upcoming third-generation Surface Studio is just rocking a very similar look.
Image: FCC

It is about time we got a new Surface Studio desktop, as the last iteration we saw of this product line was the Surface Studio 2, released back in October 2018. Rocking a near-identical appearance to the first Surface Studio desktop, the second-generation model garnered some criticism for its high price tag (starting from $3,499) and outdated CPU and GPU. An FCC report containing a test image of what appears to be the upcoming AIO computer also suggests that the Surface Studio 3 will still have a near-identical design to its predecessor, so if you were hoping for a fresh new look, you might be out of luck.

But worse, rumors suggest Microsoft could be maintaining a very annoying trend with the Studio and once again put older chips in its very expensive brand-new product. Zac Bowden, senior editor at Windows Central, reported that the upcoming Surface Studio 3 will be equipped with an Intel Core i7-11370H CPU, despite Intel’s 13th Gen processors being set to release later this month. But on the bright side, it could also have an Nvidia RTX 3060 GPU, which isn’t the most powerful GPU in Nvidia’s lineup but is at least a current one. Bowden also claims the Surface Studio 3 will actually be dubbed the “Surface Studio 2 Plus” and feature three USB-C ports and a 60Hz display. WinFuture additionally reports that the Surface Studio 3 will be available in a single configuration, equipped with 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD.

But we’ll have to see how many of these rumors and leaks hold up when Microsoft shows off the new products on October 12th.



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