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Sanders Campaign Sues DNC For Voter Data Access

Manuel Balce Ceneta
Sen. Bernie Sanders leaves an endorsement event on Dec. 17. Sanders' campaign has temporarily lost access to a major database of Democratic voters after four staffers reportedly accessed information about Hilary Clinton's campaign.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign is taking on the Democratic National Committee in federal court after the committee locked his campaign out of a data system that stores “information which is the lifeblood of this campaign,” campaign manager Jeff Weaver said at a news conference Friday.

Sanders’ campaign temporarily lost access to a major database of Democratic voters after four staffers reportedly took advantage of a vulnerability of the software system in order to get information about Hilary Clinton’s campaign, The Washington Post reported Friday.

Because competing campaigns use the system, it is designed to have firewalls between different campaigns’ research files. The goal is to allow each campaign to have access to the party’s voter data without allowing the campaigns to spy on each other’s research.

According to Friday's Washington Post story, a software update brought down the system’s firewalls on Wednesday. While those security measures were temporarily disabled, four of Sanders’ campaign staffers allegedly snooped on the Clinton campaign’s private files in the system.

In response, the Democratic National Committee locked the Sanders campaign out of the system until “it provides an explanation as well as assurances that all Clinton data has been destroyed,” the Post reported.

Weaver said Friday that Clinton’s campaign data “should not have been looked at. Period.” He added that the Sanders campaign does not have possession of any of Clinton’s campaign data. He threatened to take the national party to court if access to the data is not restored.

The campaign followed up on that threat Friday afternoon, according to Politico reporter Josh Gerstein, who posted a PDF of the campaign's lawsuit and said it had just been filed in federal court.

Sanders’ campaign has already fired one staffer - Josh Uretsky, who was the campaign's national data director - in response to the issue. Weaver said further disciplinary action may follow, but called the DNC’s move an “inappropriate overreaction.”

“In other words, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee is actively trying to undermine our campaign,” he said.

Sanders' fired data director admitted to looking into the Clinton campaign's files, but said he never intended to abuse his access. Uretsky, in an interview Friday with MSNBC, said he knew the DNC would be able to discover what he was doing, and that was exactly the point - to prove there was a problem.

“We knew that what we were doing was trackable, and we were trying to create clear record of a problem before reporting it, so that we could make sure weren’t crying wolf, and so we understood the extent of the exposure of our data,” he said.

To some of those who support Sanders, the DNC's move is hurting not just Sanders' campaign, but the democratic process as a whole. Charles Chamberlain is the executive director of Democracy for America, a million-member group that endorsed Sanders earlier in the week.

"Think of it this way," he said, "imagine if you had a TV ad on TV, and the TV channel decided one second or five seconds into your ad, 'We’re just going to blackout the rest of your ad.' That’s exactly what is happening here, except for the difference is this is the people knocking on doors, making the phone calls, and going directly to voters on the ground around the country, and they now don’t have the access to that information.”

Adding to the Sanders campaign's frustration, Weaver said this week's incident isn’t the first time the contractor for the DNC system has failed to maintain its security.

“Two months ago, we found out when we were downloading some of our data that it was dumping a bunch of other campaigns’ data along with ours, which clearly indicated that the firewall between the campaigns was ineffective,” Weaver said.

“We immediately segregated that information …  put it in a password-protected file so we could document that in fact there had been a breach – because we were very concerned that large amounts of our own data was being downloaded – and we contacted the DNC to remedy the situation,” he said. “They assured us … that this was going to be taken care of. But apparently they are not competent in terms of maintaining the security of data between campaigns.”

The contractor that runs the data system, NGP VAN, released a statement Friday that said the company isn't aware of any reports of data breaches in the past.

The company's statement said that "this bug was a brief isolated issue, and we are not aware of any previous reports of such data being inappropriately available."

Update 2:30 p.m. This story has been updated to include information from Sanders campaign news conference.

Update 5:06 p.m. This story has been updated with comments from Democracy for America Executive Director Charles Chamberlain and former Sanders campaign staffer Josh Uretsky.

Update 5:30 p.m. This story has been updated with information from Politico's Josh Gerstein regarding the Sanders campaign's lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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