by Brian T. Lynch, MSW
The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is conceived to be a neutral Democratic Party facilitator working on behalf of all Democratic political campaigns. It raises money for candidate races, it helps develop political ads and, most importantly, it has this huge national database on registered Democrats, Democratic donors, etc. This database is the most important tool candidates need in running for public office, especially Democratic presidential candidates. The DNC allows presidential campaigns to access all of this national data on individual voters, and use the database to enter their own voter information collected in the field and through their own direct voter contacts. The analysis of this information is essential for developing and monitoring campaign strategies.
Because the DNC database contains both shared and private candidate voter information, a firewall and other safeguards are in place so that competing campaigns can't peek at the private data being collected and analyzed by their Democratic rivals. This too is essential for fair and free primary competition. Candidates would have unfair advantages if they could see the information developed by their rivals. At the end of the election cycle, however, the private field data collected by the campaigns are merged and used to update the DNC's national database.
This huge database is run under a contract with a company called NGP-VAN. NGP-VAN is a partisan company; that is it is a company comprised of Democrats working for Democrats. It is the DNC's choice to contract with a partisan company. There are many competent non-partisan company providing comparable services, but the DNC believes there are advantages to hiring a partisan firm. The key reason is to develop secure, less open technologies that feed data from NGP VAN's systems into tools and platforms that put it to use, such as mobile apps used by door-to-door campaign volunteers. The motivation for hiring a partisan company seems to be an overriding need to protect the data platforms from GOP intrusions. (See click here )
But Democratic politics is also an insider's game. There is competition within the Democratic party to be the Democratic candidate on the ballot. There are many primary candidates, campaigns and primary elections that must be fair and free if our democracy is to be properly preserved. Special interest corruption or establishment favoritism within either political party is a direct threat to our American democracy. The will of Republican or Democratic voters within their party is just as sacrosanct as is the will of the people in general election voting. It is the role of the DNC to preserve American democracy for Democratic voters. Maintaining the security of the DNC database is a principle obligation. Assuring proper access of the data to all candidates is an essential responsibility of the DNC. Making sure there are no political pressures or conflicts of interest to taint or corrupt the democratic process within the party is paramount.
The question rarely asked is this; If NGP-VAN is a company made up of Democratic partisans, how can we be sure they are scrupulously unbiased with respect to all Democratic primary candidates? How can we be sure the DNC is unbiased, for that matter. These are the haunting questions that still hang in the air even after the fireworks set off by the Sanders campaigns data breach has ended. Even though the DNC quickly unblocked the Sanders campaign from its data, and Senator Sanders apologized to Hillary Clinton for the intrusion, the integrity of the DNC and NGP-VAN remains a question. This is especially true in part because there was so little concern expressed about the incompetence of NGP-VAN for the firewall failure.
The undisputed facts regarding the data breach by the Sanders campaign staff are:
- NGP-VAN rolled out updated software for this database on the morning of Dec, 17th.
- Afterwards, for about 4 hours, any data search on the system pulled up the private files of all the Presidential candidates.
- The breach was discovered by Sanders campaign staff after 10:00 am, at least 90 minutes later.
- At least 4 Sanders campaign staffers obtained access to 24 Hillary campaign files over the next 40 minutes
- NGP-VAN became aware of this activity and immediately notified the DNC
- The DNC shut down the Sanders' campaign access to the database before notifying Senator Sanders, who was unaware of the breach until the chairwoman of the DNC, Debbie Wasserman Schultz called him.
- Some of the Clinton campaign files were copied to the "Vote Finder" system of the DNC's database, meaning those files were still in DNC custody.
- Whether files were copied to private location, or viewed and analyzed in any detail is in dispute.
- One of the staffers who opened multiple files was Bernie Sanders Data Chief, Josh Uretsky, who was immediate fired.
- The extent of actions by other Sanders campaign staffers who accessed files is still in dispute and under review.
- The Clinton campaign accused the Sanders campaign of stealing data. The Sanders campaign filed a federal lawsuit against the DNC for illegally terminating access to their data and hindering their campaign.
According to a blog post written by the Stu Trevelyan, CEO of NGP-VAN, shortly after the breach was fixed the company audited its system and determined that only the Sanders campaign, and no other outside parties, could have possibly retained any of the exposed data.
Within less than a day of the Sanders lawsuit against the DNC, they restored his campaign access to the database. Bernie Sanders maintains that this isn't the first breach of data systems between the Sanders and Clinton campaign. (Although the prior breach involved a different data vendor.)