With political campaigns increasingly going high tech, it was inevitable that something as mundane as a software error would play an outsized role, but the mess the Bernie Sanders campaign finds itself in is large — if not huge.
The Democratic National Committee has told the Sanders campaign that it is suspending its access to its important voter database after a software error by an independent company enabled at least one of his staff members to review Hillary Clinton’s private campaign data.
The flap, first reported by the Washington Post, could be a major blow to the upstart presidential contender because the database includes information from voters nationwide and is used extensively by campaigns to determine strategy.
The breach occurred after a software problem at NGP VAN, a technology company which provides campaigns access to the voter data.
The company inadvertently made proprietary Clinton campaign voter data visible to others, including at least one Sanders staffer, while a patch was being applied to the software.
Firewalls are supposed to prevent campaigns from viewing data gathered by their rivals.
The Sanders campaign said that it had fired a low-level staffer who breached Clinton’s data, although The New York Times reports there were four user accounts associated with the Vermont Independent’s campaign that ran searches while the security of the Clinton’s data was exposed and compromised.
It turns out the staffer wasn't exactly low level. He's Josh Uretsky, the campaign's national data director, and he may have gone a good deal more than merely sneak a peek at the data. Bloomberg reports that after one Sanders account gained access to the Clinton data, the user began sharing permissions with other Sanders users and created at least 24 lists during the 40-minute breach.
Uretsky told MSNBC that he takes responsibility for the incident but that he did not believe accessing the data was wrong, an acknowledgement the beggars credulity.
"We didn't use [the data] for anything valuable and we didn't take custodianship of it," Uretsky added, arguing that he was trying to document the existence of the security breach but not exploit it. "It's like if somebody leaves the front door open and you left a note inside the front door saying 'you left the door open,' and then maybe you would check the side door to make sure that door was closed."
The DNC has told the Sanders campaign that it will not be allowed access to the data again until it provides an explanation as well as assurances that all Clinton data has been destroyed, while campaign manager Jeff Weaver said the campaign never downloaded or printed any of the data, meaning it is no longer in possession of any proprietary information.
At a fiery press conference on Friday afternoon, Weaver threatened to sue the DNC for blocking the campaign's access to its voter files and accused Democratic officials of trying to "sabotage" Sanders' presidential bid and help Clinton's campaign.
"It is our information and the information of all of these volunteers and the people who support our campaign, not the DNC's," Weaver declared. "In other words, by their action, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign. This is unacceptable. Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign, one of the strongest grassroots campaigns in modern history."
Sanders’ campaign got a big boost Thursday when a major union, the Communications Workers of America, endorsed him, but the suspension comes at a particularly bad time as Sanders prepares to face Clinton at the third of six Democratic debate on Saturday night and lays the groundwork for the last weeks of campaign before primary voting begins.
Relations between the campaign and the DNC -- notably committee chair and Clinton buddy Debbie Wasserman -- have been frosty because of a variety of issues, including the small number of debates and their being scheduled when most viewers are otherwise occupied, which favors front-running Clinton. (There were, by comparison, 16 televised Democratic debates in 2008.)
The DNC blamed NGP VAN for the software glitch.
DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda said the committee was notified on Wednesday by NGP VAN “that as a result of a software patch, all users on the system across Democratic campaigns were inadvertently able to access some data belonging to other campaigns for a brief window.”
NGP VAN was told to conduct an analysis to identify any users who may have accessed the exposed data, which apparently was found by the Sanders staffer.
Uretsky told CNN that he was just trying to “understand how badly the Sanders campaign’s data was exposed” by the software error. “We knew there was a security breach in the data, and we were just trying to understand it and what was happening.”
In a statement, Sanders’s campaign spokesman Michael Briggs blamed the vendor for continuing to “make serious errors.”
“On more than one occasion, the vendor has dropped the firewall between the data of different Democratic campaigns,” he said. “Our campaign months ago alerted the DNC to the fact that campaign data was being made available to other campaigns. At that time our campaign did not run to the media, relying instead on assurances from the vendor.”
Briggs added that the errors had also “made our records vulnerable.”