Update: On January 17, Rebekah Jones turned herself in to Florida police after they issued a warrant for her arrest. She was charged with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks, and electronic devices. Jones said that she tested positive for COVID-19 after turning herself in, but also said that she did so for the sake of her family. "To protect my family from continued police violence, and to show that I'm ready to fight whatever they throw at me, I'm turning myself into police in Florida Sunday night," she tweeted on Saturday. "The Governor will not win his war on science and free speech. He will not silence those who speak out."
This story was originally published on December 8, 2020.
On Monday morning, Florida police officers with guns drawn raided the home of Rebekah Jones, a former Florida Department of Health data scientist. Jones, who lives in Tallahassee, was fired earlier this year for what she claims was a refusal to falsify COVID-19 data to downplay risks of infection and death in the state. Although law enforcement officials claim that a security breach required them to search Jones's home, she says that this is a “thinly veiled attempt by the governor to intimidate scientists.”
After officers stormed her home, Jones posted a 30-second video on Twitter of the raid, showing the tense first moments of her home raid. At 8:30 a.m, Jones answered the door with her hands up as one officer ordered her to step outside and asked whether anyone else is in the house with her. After she responded saying her husband and two children were inside, the officer then drew his handgun and walked to the bottom of a staircase. “Mr. Jones, come down the stars – now,” the officer shouted. Then, more police entered, guns in hand, and one said, “Police. Come down now.” While outside, Jones can be heard yelling, “Do not point that gun at my children. He just pointed a gun at my children.”
1/— Rebekah Jones (@GeoRebekah) December 7, 2020
There will be no update today.
At 8:30 am this morning, state police came into my house and took all my hardware and tech.
They were serving a warrant on my computer after DOH filed a complaint.
They pointed a gun in my face. They pointed guns at my kids.. pic.twitter.com/DE2QfOmtPU
In a Twitter thread later that day, Jones recounted the incident saying that they took her computer, phone, among other devices she uses to support a coronavirus website she set up after she accused the state of manipulating its official numbers. According to Jones, this raid was an attempt to silence her work. “They took evidence of corruption at the state level. They claimed it was about a security breach. This is DeSantis,” Jones tweeted, calling out Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “He sent the gestapo.”
According to a statement released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, several devices were seized for forensic analysis. They allege that Jones may have also used these devices to hack into a health department website to send an unauthorized message to Florida emergency personnel last month. Jones denies the accusation. In the same statement, law enforcement denies pointing a gun at anyone in the home despite conflicting statements made in the video.
This is the latest clash between Jones and state officials who have lodged accusations against each other since she was fired earlier this year for insubordination. She has accused the state of mismanaging the health crisis that so far has infected more than a million residents, but law enforcement officials believe they have linked the hack back to Jones. Refinery29 reached out to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for more information, but they did not respond at the time of publication.
Ahead, we've mapped out the details of Rebekah Jones's case, and what might happen next.
First, who is Rebekah Jones?
Jones worked as a geographic information systems manager in the Florida Department of Health’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection out of Tallahassee until May when she was fired. She is credited with creating the state's COVID-19 map dashboard before she was terminated. Now, she runs a website where she shares COVID-19 updates. The portal is advertised as the transparent and independently-run alternative to the state dashboard.
Why was Rebekah Jones fired?
According to Jones, she was fired for refusing to doctor data after being asked to do so by her former managers. Jones told The Washington Post that she was asked to underreport the infection total and overcount the number of people getting tested so the data would support DeSantis’ desire to reopen the state. The health department has denied this. At the time, a spokesperson for the governor said Jones “exhibited a repeated course of insubordination during her time with the Department, including her unilateral decisions to modify the Department’s COVID-19 dashboard without input of approval from the epidemiological team or her supervisors.”
When the story made national headlines, top Democrats in the state called for an investigation into her dismissal. DeSantis responded by downplaying Jones’ role in developing the online dashboard, saying that she should have been fired after being charged with cyberstalking. According to Leon County court documents, Jones was charged in July 2019 with two counts of cyberstalking and one count of sexual cyber harassment. Two of the charges have been closed, reports CBS Miami, but a single cyberstalking charge remains open.
What was the Rebekah Jones security breach about?
In an affidavit filed by state police special agent Noel Pratts, he claims authorities traced a security breach of the health department platform in November back to Jones. The platform, ReadyOp, is used to coordinate emergency response across state agencies. On November 10, members of the public health emergencies group received a message that read, “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don’t have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”
In an interview with CNN on Monday night, Jones denied accessing the platform. “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. I haven’t had access to any system at DOH for over six months.” She went on to warn current health department staffers saying, “DeSantis will know soon enough that you’ve been talking to me, so be careful.”
What did Rebekah Jones say about her home being raid?
On Twitter, Jones said she was served a search warrant when police came to her home. “This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly,” Jones tweeted. “This is what happens to people who speak truth to power...If DeSantis thought pointing a gun in my face was a good way to get me to shut up, he’s about to learn just how wrong he was. I’ll have a new computer tomorrow. And then I’m going to get back to work.”
On Monday night, Jones’ lawyer, Lawrence Walters, released a statement which read, “The actions of Florida law enforcement captured on my client’s video depicts unnecessarily reckless and aggressive behavior in the execution of a search warrant for computers. Our client was fully cooperative yet had guns pointed and her and her family. We are concerned that these actions may be retaliation in response to her whistleblower claim against the Department of Health and her criticism of the Governor’s COVID-19 response."