A technological transgression is threatening to derail the insurgent White House bid of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and it set off a fierce battle Friday between Sanders and the national Democratic Party, which cut off his campaign from a crucial voter database.
The dispute was rooted in Sanders staffers peeking at confidential voter files owned by rival Hillary Clinton's campaign. By the end of the day, after a dizzying volley of charges and counter charges, it had landed before a federal judge. That was after the Sanders technology advisor who oversaw the snooping had been fired and open political warfare had erupted between the party and progressives backing Sanders, who accuse it of meting out a punishment that doesn't fit the crime to give Clinton a leg up in the race.
It was all an unwelcome development for Sanders on the eve of a presidential debate Saturday in New Hampshire, where he is under pressure to rekindle some of his early momentum. The senator needs a strong showing at the event, in a state that has become almost a must-win for him. He has struggled to gain leverage over Clinton since the focus of voter attention shifted from the economy to national security, an area where she has considerably more experience. Now Sanders is faced with having to answer questions about the data breach.
The dispute also underscores the ever-growing role that data play in modern presidential campaigns, where resources are marshaled around precise formulas that factor in such details as where voters live, their latest purchases at big-box retailers and what magazines they read. The lawsuit the Sanders campaign filed against the Democratic National Committee late Friday alleges the party is breaking its contract with the campaign by cutting it off from a database that is the lifeblood of the campaign.
"The campaign is hamstrung without access to the voter data," the campaign said in the lawsuit. It said the campaign is losing an estimated $600,000 in contributions each day it does not have access to the data, which is used to target donors. "However the damage to the campaign's political viability, as a result of being unable to communicate with constituents and voters, is far more severe, and incapable of measurement," the complaint said.
The electronic snooping at issue came after the contractor that handles the DNC database temporarily dropped the firewall that prevents one campaign from seeing data that belongs to another.
The Sanders campaign responded aggressively to the party's move, saying it had fired the employee who made the decision to peek at the Clinton files and accusing the DNC of trying to "sabotage" Sanders' campaign by blocking its access to critical voter information.
Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver accused the DNC of holding the campaign's data "hostage," which he said was an attack on "the heart and soul" of the Sanders operation. He said the DNC was using the breach as an excuse to do the Clinton campaign's bidding. Blocking access to the voter database, he said, would prevent the Sanders campaign from using even its own voter information.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC chair, denied that the committee was being unfair. She likened Weaver's demand for access to the voter file to a burglar who entered a house through an unlocked door, stolen items and then continued to insist on having access to the house.
Blocking the voter database is the only way to "protect the integrity" of the files until an independent audit can determine what information Sanders' staff may have taken, she said in an interview on CNN. "The Sanders campaign doesn't have anything other than bluster at this moment."
The Clinton campaign piled on, saying Sanders' team had misrepresented what happened.
"This was an egregious breach," said Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook. "Our data was stolen. ... This was not an inadvertent glimpse into our data."
The violation creates not only technical obstacles for the Sanders campaign, but also damaging political fallout. Sanders has boasted that he runs a strictly positive campaign, vowing he would never broadcast attack ads or resort to any of the kind of dirty tricks that have long been a staple of American politics. That vow is at the core of his campaign's marketing strategy. The optics of a high-level staffer snooping in the sensitive data files of the competition threatens to tarnish that carefully cultivated brand.
"On its face, the Sanders complaint seems plausible," UC Irvine law professor Rick Hasen wrote on his election law blog, though he cautioned that "it is always perilous to figure out how strong a case is from seeing just one side's pleadings."
Sanders has "a very good argument for irreparable harm, especially at this point in the campaign," Hasen added. But, he said, the DNC may be able to argue that it was legally obligated to suspend Sanders' access in order to protect the confidentiality of competing campaigns' data.
The ex-employee, Josh Uretsky, told CNN that he wasn't trying to steal Clinton data but rather trying to understand the gap in security in the system.
"To the best of my knowledge, nobody took anything that would have given the campaign any benefit," he told the network.
The Clinton campaign was told that four users made a total of 25 searches of its data, spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement. He urged the party and Sanders' campaign to ensure it no longer had access to Clinton's data.
Sanders campaign officials laid blame on the firm that manages the giant voter file for the party, NGP VAN. Campaign spokesman Michael Briggs said that the data file has been exposed to breaches for months, and the Sanders campaign itself had been warning about it.
Digital privacy advocates say the breach is a wake-up call. Campaigns are compiling ever-growing reams of sensitive information about voters, including, in some cases, their Social Security numbers and records on gun ownership. Yet the rules governing what steps campaigns must take to safeguard the information are exceedingly loose, according to Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
"These laws have explicit carve-outs for campaigns," he said. "Politicians don't want the restrictions commercial entities have. Some of the stuff they collect is very sensitive. They have this tendency to collect as much data about a voter as they can get ahold of. And there are not a lot of protections" on how campaigns store it.
In this case, the firewall that political data behemoth NGP VAN had built to keep rival campaigns from accessing one another's information had temporarily come down as the result of a bug, according to company CEO Stu Trevelyan.
"We are confident at this point that no campaigns have access to or have retained any voter file data of any other clients, with one possible exception, which is the Sanders campaign," he said.
While he tried to minimize the effect of the bug, saying that only for a brief window were some data for one campaign viewable by others but that they couldn't export, save or act on it within the system, he acknowledged the Sanders campaign might have been able to save the data on its own drives through such means as screen grabs.
Republicans, who have been having data troubles of their own this year, gloated at news of the DNC's misfortune. The GOP takes a different approach to data collection. Instead of every campaign -- from that of a local mayor to that of a presidential contender -- working through one enriched database managed by a single firm, its candidates choose from a myriad of competing products. Data experts have said the GOP approach has led to key information being fragmented in different systems, leaving the party at a competitive disadvantage. But Republicans counter their "free-market" approach encourages more innovation, and also allows candidates flexibility to pivot if a firm underperforms.
"The Democrats have had a smug attitude about their data situation and sharing of information using VAN for years," said Vincent Harris, a GOP technology consultant. "They've publicly scoffed at the more disparate solution Republicans have. Today, the joke, though, is on them."