Did COVID data whistleblower hack Florida’s emergency alert system? Police raid home

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Monday raided the home of a former Department of Health data analyst who has been running an alternative web site to the state’s COVID dashboard, alleging that she may have broken into a state email system and sent an unauthorized message to employees.

But Rebekah Jones, who was was fired from her job in May as the geographic information system manager for DOH’s Division of Disease Control and Health Protection and who has since filed a whistleblower complaint against the state, denied having any role in the alleged intrusion into the state web site and instead said she believes Monday’s action was intended to silence her.

Jones said state police came into her house at 8:30 a.m., at gunpoint and, over the course of three hours, swept her house and took her cell phone and several laptops that contained COVID-19 data that she has accumulated over several months.

“This was a threat,” Jones said in an interview with the Herald/Times at her home Monday night. “It is one thing to point a gun six inches away from my face and threaten me. It is another to point it at my 2-year-old’s face.”

Her lawyer, Lawrence Walters, called the state’s claim that she accessed the state email system “baseless.” He said the raid “could be retaliation” for Jones’ public defiance against her former employer and said the state’s seizure of her computers could be an attempt to undermine her lawsuit.

“Access to our confidential and privileged information shouldn’t be used by our adversaries in a litigation,’’ he said. “It’s extremely rare. It’s close to unprecedented, and it’s dangerous for the judicial system.”

ALLEGATION OF MANIPULATED DATA

Jones was fired in May after she complained in an email to users of a state data portal that the state was manipulating data. She announced that she had been removed from overseeing the dashboard and hinted that she had been stripped of the responsibility as a result of raising concerns about the state’s commitment to transparency.

The FDLE said in a statement late Monday that it issued the search warrant after suspecting Jones of being responsible for sending an unauthorized message to members of the State Emergency Response Team charged with coordinating the public health and medical response.

The Nov. 10 message, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, urged 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.” At the time of the message, Florida had reported 17,460 coronavirus-related deaths among Florida residents and non-residents.

The FDLE said in its statement that the search warrant was issued for Jones’ Tallahassee home and it began an investigation “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.”

Jones denied any involvement in the hack.

“Hacking is not something I ever thought they would accuse me of because I have never displayed any capability of doing that,” she said. “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 an affidavit signed by FDLE investigator Noel Pratt on Dec. 3, he concluded the email message was sent to approximately 1,750 accounts before it was discovered. Pratt said in the affidavit that he tracked down the IP address of the computer associated with the email and it directed him to Jones’ home address, which he said was probable cause to conduct a search of her property and seize her computers.

Jones said FDLE agents told her the Department of Health’s inspector general’s office gave them her IP address. “I guess they just signed off on that and showed up at my house with guns,’’ she said.

SERVING THE SEARCH WARRANT

The FDLE said that when agents arrived at Jones’ home, “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 agent,’’ the statement said. “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.”

According to the video from inside Jones’ home, which she said she took using a camera on a bookshelf, police pointed guns at her and ordered her husband to appear. “Come outside the house,’’ they commanded, asking who else was in the house. She replied it was her two children and husband.

“Come down the stairs, now,’’ police shouted. “Police! Come down now.”

Jones yelled: “They just pointed a gun at my children” and that is where the video ended.

Jones said it was not true that she refused to open the door. She told the Herald/Times that the delay in opening the door has to do with her taking the time to get dressed because she feared she was going to be arrested.

She also said that if she had been able to hack into the email she would have used a different number of COVID fatalities.

“If I was really that skilled that I could hack a system, and I was going to make people feel bad about this, I at least would have the number of deaths right, because it didn’t include any of the non-residents.”

She said that in May, ”DeSantis publicly said I’m not a data scientist, I’m not a computer scientist and I wouldn’t even know what to do if I saw a database, and now he’s accusing me of hacking one,’’ she said. “It’s a real 180 there. I’m not a hacker. I don’t hack. I don’t know s— about computers. I know how to do statistics.”

The fact that the state is now in possession of her laptops and cell phone will expose her sources, Jones said.

“The most damning stuff that they are going to get from that equipment is the information about all of the employees from the state who have talked to me over the last six months,” Jones said. “And, the fact that I promised them I would never tell anybody who they were, or where they worked and I have failed to protect them, really f—–g pissed me off.”

PRAISE FOR FLORIDA’S DASHBOARD

Jones had attracted national attention for her work creating the dashboard, which had been singled out for praise last spring by Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force. After she was removed for what the governor’s office called “insubordination,’’ Jones created a competing dashboard. Her version draws upon state data but offers an expanded menu of metrics, including data the state was not making public at the time — such as hospital bed availability by facility, a key number, especially now as the number of confirmed cases soars.

She also developed the COVID monitor, a dashboard to report nationwide COVID cases by school, data which Florida officials collect but for months refused to make publicly available.

In July, she filed a confidential whistle-blower complaint with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which she said is expected to release its findings soon. She also wrote in an op-ed in the Miami Herald in July that other state workers were being silenced for expressing their concerns about the state’s handling of the coronavirus and its data collection.

On Twitter Monday, she accused DeSantis of orchestrating the raid.

“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,’’ she said. “They took evidence of corruption at the state level. They claimed it was about a security breach. This was DeSantis. He sent the gestapo.”

She added: “This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly. This is what happens to people who speak truth to power.”

Jones said the raid won’t stop her from continuing her work.

“I’m going to buy another computer tomorrow and go back to work,’’ she said, adding that she was proud of her ability to build her own web site and “hadn’t missed a single day.”

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat, retweeted Jones’ original Twitter post and added the comment: “Horrifying. Why are guns being drawn out for a “data breach?”

Miami Herald reporter Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.

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