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With guns drawn, police raid home and seize computers of COVID-19 data whistleblower

Rebekah Jones built Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard before she was fired

Photo by GeoRebekah via Wikimedia Commons

Eight months ago, Deborah Birx of the White House Coronavirus Task Force praised Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard as an example of “the kind of knowledge and power we need to put into the hands of the American people.” That dashboard was built by Rebekah Jones.

But in May, Jones was fired by the Florida Department of Health for reportedly refusing to manipulate that data to justify reopening the state early — and now, Florida state police have raided her home and seized the equipment she was using to maintain a new, independent COVID-19 tracker of her own.

Jones posted a series of tweets about the incident, including a video of police entering — with guns drawn.

Florida’s Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) confirmed to the Miami Herald and the Tallahassee Democrat that police had a search warrant and had seized her equipment. Here’s the department’s full statement as provided to The Verge:

“This morning FDLE served a search warrant at a residence on Centerville Court in Tallahassee, the home of Rebekah Jones. FDLE began an investigation November 10, 2020 after receiving a complaint from the Department of Health regarding unauthorized access to a Department of Health messaging system which is part of an emergency alert system, to be used for emergencies only. Agents believe someone at the residence on Centerville Court illegally accessed the system.

When agents arrived, they knocked on the door and called Ms. Jones in an attempt to minimize disruption to the family. Ms. Jones refused to come to the door for 20 minutes and hung-up on agents. After several attempts and verbal notifications that law enforcement officers were there to serve a legal search warrant, Ms. Jones eventually came to the door and allowed agents to enter. Ms. Jones family was upstairs when agents made entry into the home.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported last month, someone mysteriously sent an unauthorized message to the state’s emergency public health and medical coordination team, reading “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.”

According to an affidavit provided to us by the FDLE, law enforcement believes that Jones or someone at her address was the one who sent it. We’re not publishing the affidavit because it contains lots of personally identifying information, but the FDLE claims the message was sent from a Comcast IP associated with her home address and email address, and the affidavit asks permission to seize and search all computer equipment police might find.

But the COVID-19 data scientist says she didn’t do it, repeatedly denying to CNN in a full video interview that she’d accessed the system or sent any message, that the message doesn’t reflect how she talks and that the number of deaths quoted was wrong. She suggested that Florida police already knew she didn’t send the message, because they didn’t seize her router or her husband’s computer — only her own computer and phone.

“They took my phone, and they took the computer that I used to run my companies. On my phone is every communication I’ve ever had with someone who works at the state who’s come to me in confidence and told me about things that could get them fired or in trouble,” she told CNN, suggesting that the raid was designed to intimidate whistleblowers and critics of Florida governor Ron DeSantis.

A spokesperson for DeSantis told CNN his office had no knowledge of the investigation.

While there was a suggestion last month that the Florida messaging system might have been hacked rather than simply improperly accessed, it apparently didn’t have particularly strong security anyhow: the affidavit says all of the registered users shared the same username and password.

Jones didn’t comment when we asked, but on Twitter she says she’s getting a new computer and will continue to update her new website.

Additional reporting by Mitchell Clark

Update December 8th, 1:01PM ET: Added that Jones has vehemently denied the allegations in an interview with CNN.