Let’s Break Down this Data Breach “Scandal”




Let’s take a moment and look a little closer at the data breach scandal that has clumsily thrown the Democratic party into some kind of Mexican standoff between supporters of its two front-running presidential candidates. It’s hard to find anything like an unbiased article to link to, but in case you haven’t heard the DNC’s voter file has been compromised.   Several (what could only be senior level) staffers from the Sanders campaign may have been able to view voter data from the rival Clinton campaign for anywhere from a few moments to a couple of hours on Friday. According to USA Today this is because “a vendor’s firewall failed”, which made Clinton voter data available to rival campaigns for the brief window. The crux of all this is this isn’t free data. The firm that collects, stores, and sells this data to campaigns is called NGP/VAN, and is the single most essential modern organizing tool for political organizers and operatives on the Democratic side of the aisle. So when data is made available to those who didn’t pay for it or other wise request access to it, it’s a major issue. It’s a major issue not only because the Democratic party has a contract with the vendor and therefore needs the company to be able to trust them with sensitive data about millions of voters, but also because the company has a reputation to uphold as well. Both are put at risk when this sort of thing happens.

The details around the actual data breach are hazy at best. Depending on what sources one goes to, the Sanders campaign either maliciously tried to gain access to their rival’s files or was set up by the DNC in order to bring their campaign down. What we do know is the Sanders campaign fired Josh Uretsky, its national data director over the incident. Shortly after that, Sander’s campaign manager Robby Mook held a press conference specifically to lay into the DNC and present the campaign’s version of events. “We are particularly disturbed right now that they [the DNC/Clinton campaign, presumably] are using the fact that they stole data as a reason to raise money for their campaign,” Mook told reporters. Jeff Weaver, also identified by the Associated Press as a/the Sanders campaign manager, said  “Clearly, in thise case, they [the DNC] are trying to help the Clinton campaign.”

The judgment and collective outrage of the progressive community was swift. The collective decision has already been made that the DNC is a shill for the establishment candidate and the system is rigged against the progressive candidate. Popular progressive blog Crooks and Liars veered dangerously close to Gamergate territory with an article entitled The DNC Data Breach-It’s the Cover Up! In it they alleged “the DNC was out there employing the great smoke and mirrors of politics.” Their opinion is that Sanders is just the fall guy in a DNC attempt to cover up a massive security breach that would have undermined the relationship between them and the vendor that maintains their database. And that was just the most benevolent critique of the DNC from the progressive blogosphere. Reverbpress argues the data breach is just an excuse to punish an insurgent campaign. Because the breach was described as “inadvertent” (the actual quote, misrepresented by the article, is that all users were “inadvertently able to access some data belonging to other campaigns for a brief window”) by the DNC communications director, according to Reverb, the Sanders campaign was unfairly punished when it was temporarily suspended from accessing voter files with NGP/VAN. Consistently outraged Russia Today apparently agrees, going so far as to call it “our data.”


But the evidence suggests that this breach wasn’t just something Uretsky happened to stumble upon alone one night while going over campaign data. Multiple sources with presumably some level of inside knowledge of the incident have apparently told reporters that four NGP/VAN user accounts tied to the Sanders campaign had run searches of the data at the time it was compromised. And yesterday the Sanders campaign suspended two more staffers who were likely involved in the incident. So far, it seems like no one’s telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth about what happened here.

And that’s probably because no one knows what happened here for sure. That is what annoys me most about progressives’ reactions to this. Usually it’s bloggers and internet trolls on the right that react prematurely to events and spin conspiracy theories like yarn at will. Usually it’s the Brietbarts and Limbaughs of the world that see cover-ups at every turn. But this is the first nationally significant news story in quite a while where virtually the entire American progressive left has thrown itself into the deep end without knowing virtually anything about the data breach incident. Even Snopes doesn’t know what happened. But despite that, and despite the story being unresolved and barely 72 hours old, the verdict is in. The DNC chair, Hillary, etc. must hang. They have been lying to and instilling fear in “movement progressives” (are there non-movement progressives?) for too long and must hang for it.

As for me, before I don the black hood and walk Hillary up the creaky wooden ramp to the gallows, I want to at least take a look at other possible explanations, particularly ones that don’t contain the accusation of malice on the part of one of the two leading campaigns in the primary. Because if we look at the facts, there’s no evidence of malice; incompetence, maybe, but no malice. After sifting through the countless articles on the breach, I find this take from the always thorough David Phillips to be the most compelling (the key portion of his article quoted below):

“So here we have a situation where people now behave like fans instead of citizens and supporters. More than one thing can be true at a time. You can think Hillary Clinton is a less than savory candidate (no argument from me). You can think Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is shitty at her job and favors Clinton (I certainly believe both of those things), you can believe the DNC is a hot mess and I won’t argue with that either.

What I will say is when you are faced with good liberal reporting that tells you this breach not only occurred, but involved multiple staffers and the collection of data, AND there is empirical digital data that proves that, AND the guy who did it flat-out confessed that all these things are true, AND you still want to defend the behavior of the campaign or even worse, deny that it happened at all, well, now you’ve become something akin to a republican denying that climate change is man-made, or even is a thing.”

That’s about it, folks. Facts are stubborn things. And the facts simply do not support a grand anti-Sanders conspiracy surrounding a data breach that several of his staffers may (or may not) have behaved less then ethically during. Not all the facts have come out yet, but so far the conspiracy theory just doesn’t look plausible. What’s more likely is simply the result of an insurgent campaign hiring staffers driven by ideology more then experience. In other words, some of Sanders’s staffers may never have experienced a high-pressure situation where one must tread incredibly lightly to remain ethical, and a few of them choked. As of this time, that’s about it.

Let’s Break Down this Data Breach “Scandal”

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