Florida police raid home of former state coronavirus data manager
December 8, 2020
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Workers removing a sign from a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Orlando, Fla. in October, 2020.
Enlarge / Workers removing a sign from a drive-through COVID-19 testing site in Orlando, Fla. in October, 2020.

Police on Monday raided the Florida home of data scientist Rebekah Jones, who alleged in May that she was fired from her job collating COVID-19 data for the state because she refused to “manipulate” data to make the governor’s agenda look more favorable.

“At 8:30 this morning, state police came into my house and took all my hardware and tech,” Jones said in a Twitter thread on Monday afternoon. Her initial post included a 30-second video of armed officers pointing guns up a staircase and shouting for Jones’ husband and children to come down before another officer shouted, “search warrant!” loudly to no one in particular.

“They pointed a gun in my face. They pointed guns at my kids,” Jones added. “They took my phone and the computer I use every day to post the case numbers in Florida, and school cases for the entire country. They took evidence of corruption at the state level.”

In her messages, Jones explicitly laid the blame for the raid at the feet of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, saying, “This was DeSantis. He sent the gestapo… this is DeSantis’ Florida.”

The DeSantis administration denied any participation, telling CNN, “the governor’s office had no involvement, no knowledge, no nothing, of this investigation.”

Commissioner Rick Swearingen of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed in a written statement that agents went to Jones’ home to serve a search warrant.

“Our investigation began last month following a complaint by Florida Department of Health that a person illegally hacked into their emergency alert system,” Swearingen said. FDLE agents went to Jones’ house “after determining the home was the location that the unauthorized message was sent from.”

“After several attempts, Ms. Jones allowed agents inside,” Swearingen added. “Agents entered the home in accordance with normal protocols and seized several devices that will be forensically analyzed. At no time were weapons pointed at anyone in the home. Any evidence will be referred to the State Attorney for prosecution as appropriate.”

The message

The Florida Department of Health said last month that someone accessed its emergency communications system to send an “unauthorized message” to approximately 1,750 members of the state’s emergency response team.

The message, according to The Tampa Bay Times, told recipients to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be a part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.” Investigators said the messages were sent from an IP address that was connected to Jones’ house.

The message in question was sent from a state account known as ESF-8, which is used by “many people from several agencies,” the Tallahassee Democrat reported—and all of those “many people” share a single username and password to access the system. People who have access but leave those jobs are simply “no longer authorized to access the multi-user group.”

Jones repeatedly denied having anything to do with the unauthorized text. “Hacking is not something I ever thought they would accuse me of because I have never displayed any capability of doing that,” she told the Tampa Bay Times. “I’ve never taken any computer courses or anything like that. I do statistics in a software program designed basically to do all that stuff for you by clicking stuff.”

In a CNN interview late Monday, Jones elaborated, “I’m not a hacker,” adding that neither the tone or the content of the message were something she would have sent.

“I don’t think they were after me,” Jones added to CNN’s Chris Cuomo, instead alleging that the DeSantis administration was trying to ferret out her confidential sources. “They didn’t take the router in the house, they didn’t take a number of laptops in the house,” she said. “They took my phone and they took the computer that I use to run my companies. And on my phone is every communication I’ve ever had with someone who works at the state who has come to me in confidence and told me things that could get them fired or in trouble like this.”

The road from May

Jones built out Florida’s COVID-19 data dashboard and managed it until May 5, at which point she and her team were suddenly removed from the project. In mid-May, she said she was not only taken off the dashboard project but also fired from her job entirely because she refused to cook the numbers to make it appear safe for the state to re-open businesses and venues.

Since parting ways with the state, Jones launched her own independent Florida COVID data dashboard and co-founded The COVID Monitor, which tracks outbreaks of the novel coronavirus disease in K-12 public school districts.

Back in May, a spokesperson for DeSantis said that Jones was fired for “a repeated course of insubordination,” describing her as “disruptive.” DeSantis himself said the allegations of data manipulation were a “nonissue” and moved forward with state reopening plans.

Florida entered phase 1 of its reopening plan on May 4, which allowed for restaurants and retailers to open at 25 percent capacity. Phase 2 began on June 5 and allowed for gatherings of up to 50 people and permitted movie theaters, bowling alleys, casinos, gyms, bars, pubs, nightclubs, and other venues to operate at 50 percent capacity. Personal care businesses, such as nail and hair salons, tattoo parlors, and tanning salons, were also permitted to open at reduced capacity.

Diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in Florida began to spike shortly after phase 1 took effect, according to data compiled by the New York Times. Cases peaked in mid-July at an average of more than 11,000 new cases per day before dropping back below 3,000 per day in September. The data shows another major surge beginning in mid-October, shortly after phase 3 reopening went into effect, and as of Monday, the state is averaging almost 9,500 new cases per day.

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