Armed agents raid home of Rebekah Jones, fired data scientist who tracks COVID-19 numbers in Florida
If you follow reporting on COVID-19 on Twitter, you’ve likely come across a Twitter account from data scientist Rebekah Jones. Why? Jones, a former state coronavirus data scientist for Florida, was fired from her position at Florida’s Department of Health in May. Jones has alleged she was terminated from her position, which included creating the state’s public-facing dashboard for the coronavirus, because she refused to downplay the extent of the virus outbreak. The reason you’re likely familiar with Jones is that she regularly uses her platform to independently share data about the coronavirus cases, including deaths, using her own dashboard.
As of Tuesday morning, her name is probably especially familiar because, as she tweeted about in detail, armed Florida state police raided her home in Tallahassee, Florida, on Monday morning and executed a search warrant. As reported by CNN, based on an affidavit from an agent who is working on the case (not linked here because of the personal information it contains), the agency is investigating whether or not Jones had accessed a state government chat messaging system without authorization. Jones denies this allegation. Her viral video (from surveillance footage) shows officers at her home; Jones has said an officer pointed a gun at her husband and two small children, though that isn’t visible in the video. We can break down the context and background below.
First, here is her thread, including her video. You can hear Jones shout, “He just pointed a gun at my children!”
In a statement to the HuffPost on Monday evening, Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) Commissioner Rick Swearingen told news outlet that Jones “refused to come to the door for 20 minutes and hung-up on agents.” In a statement, Swearingen told HuffPost that officers went to Jones’ residence because an investigation suggested someone at her home hacked into the state’s emergency alert system. As reported by NPR, Jones has said she was not arrested, nor charged with a crime.
As reported by The Washington Post according to the affidavit, in early November, emergency communications personnel and the medical coordination team received a message that reportedly encouraged members to speak up, including: “It’s time 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.”
In initial reporting, authorities said they did not know who the message came from. Now authorities say they’ve traced the message back to an IP address affiliated with Jones’ Comcast account, according to the affidavit. Jones denies that allegation, saying she’s not a hacker and that the message actually contained an error (rounding down the number of deaths) that she wouldn’t make. As The Verge reports, according to the affidavit, all registered users for the system shared the same username and password.
Among other points in speaking with CNN host Chris Cuomo on Monday evening, Jones told Cuomo she sees the raid on her home as a “thinly veiled attempt by the governor to intimidate scientists.” She also advised health department workers she’s been communicating with to “be careful” and suggested that Republican Gov. DeSantis will now know about their contact. She told Cuomo officers took her cell phone and computers.
“DeSantis needs to worry less about what I’m writing about,” Jones told Cuomo, “and more about the people who are sick and dying in his state.”
Fred Piccolo, a spokesperson for DeSantis, told CNN that the governor’s office “had no involvement, no knowledge, no nothing, of this investigation.” According to the health department, Jones was fired from her position back in May because of repeated “insubordination,” including deciding on her own to “modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input or approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.” You might have noticed her Twitter bio begins with the word “#Insubordinate.”
Here’s an interview Jones did with MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell several months ago, describing how she started her own database.
Based on her Twitter, it appears Jones plans to get a new computer and continue on with her work.