Florida police raid the home of Rebekah Jones, a former state Department of Health employee who built the state’s COVID dashboard before she was fired.
BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. — Images of state agents drawing guns as they raided the home of the fired Florida Department of Healthdata scientist Rebekah Jones Monday were met with alarm by fellow researchers and academics across the United States.
“Brazen actions by Florida authorities demand greater transparency to protect the free flow of information and rights of the public,” the American Association of Geographers wrote in a statement posted to Twitter.
Armed Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents executed a warrant on Jones’ Tallahassee home on Monday morning seizing her computer, phone and several hard drives. An affidavit for the warrant claims that an unauthorized message sent from a state emergency management account on Nov. 10 was traced to an IP address associated with Jones. She denied being behind the message, which called on DOH employees to speak out.
Previously: As Florida re-opens, COVID-19 data chief gets sidelined and researchers cry foul
Jones was fired by the Florida DOH in May for what state officials said was “insubordination” after being reprimanded several times. She claimed she was removed for refusing to doctor public COVID-19 data to suit Governor Ron DeSantis’ re-opening agenda. As a Geographic Information System Manager, Jones oversaw the state’s COVID-19 dashboard, an online public information portal showing COVID-19 data for testing, cases and deaths by locality.She has since created her own COVID-19 dashboard.
Since her firing from DOH, Jones has amassed a significant social media following. To some, she’s a whistleblower and hero. Others have criticized her for using her platform to overstep the boundaries of her expertise. That said, the image of state agents with guns drawn in Jones’ home was unsettling, other scientists said, even as they acknowledged much remains unknown about the circumstances that led to the raid.
Former Florida data chief Rebekah Jones discusses the differences between her coronavirus dashboard and the Florida Department of Heath’s
“It’s a scary time. When you’re simply doing your job, and you could get thrown in jail because people don’t like how you’re doing a job, it’s scary,” said Jay Metzger the president of the New England chapter of URISA, a national association of GIS professionals. Metzger also is the GIS manager for the Rhode Island Department of Health, and set up that state’s coronavirus data portal, but clarified he was speaking to FLORIDA TODAY, part of the USA TODAY Network, in his capacity as president of NEURISA.
“My peers are completely distraught,” he said. “People are literally upset, like crying upset about this because we all believe the same thing: That data should be treated with respect.”
Who is Rebekah Jones?: Former Florida COVID-19 data scientist had home raided by authorities
Metzger, like many, questioned the tactics used by FDLE,who entered guns drawn to Jones’ home where her husband and two young children also reside. “There had to be a better way,” he said.
“The violent approach does come off as an attempt to intimidate,” said Karyn Esser, a professor of Physiology in the College of Medicine at the University of Florida, adding that for now it was unclear where that order to raid Jones’ home came from.
“(Jones) aggravates, which is not illegal but can serve to enflame. As a scientist my preference for these battles are the cool calculating types,” she said, adding “but armed militia was not necessary.”
The FDLE in a Tuesday afternoon statement said their officers exercised “tremendous restraint” in executing the search warrant, “especially considering the significant delay they faced in gaining entry and what that could represent to officer safety.”
The American Association of Geographers previously defended Jones against smears from DeSantis that she wasn’t a “real” data scientist. The group’s executive director Gary Langham called the raid on Jones’s home “outrageous” and demanded officials explain their actions.
In a statement provided to FLORIDA TODAY Langham wrote: “Since the earliest signs of the COVID-19 pandemic late last year, all over the world, geographers and GIScientists have worked tirelessly to inform urgent policy decisions using geospatial data and analysis. Geographers like Rebekah Jones have played a critical role throughout the COVID-19 pandemic by visualizing and analyzing public health data to make it actionable. From the beginning, this case has been a dramatic, and now alarming, example of how important open access and transparency are for scientific inquiry and public health. We continue to be very concerned by what we’ve seen playing out in Florida, particularly as it relates to data and its accessibility.”
Metzger invited Jones to be the keynote speaker for his organization’s annual conference in October,calling her “a hero for us.” Metzger said that the pandemic, and Jones’s case, has made starkly clear the problem of data politicization in the field.
“GIS professionals are realizing how significant this is because if we can’t trust data, if you can’t trust that things are being done with integrity, if you can’t trust the things are being done ethically: How do you get that trust back?”
Jones said her concern is that by seizing her devices officials were trying to get to her contacts within the Florida DOH. “Two birds, one stone,” she wrote in a message to FLORIDA TODAY.
“I promised to protect them, that no one would find out they talked to me,” she said. “I failed.”
DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo told CNN that “the governor’s office had no involvement, no knowledge, no nothing, of this investigation.”
FDLE began the investigation November 10 after receiving a complaint from the DOH regarding unauthorized access to a Department of Health messaging system which is part of an emergency alert system, to be used for emergencies only, the agency said.
According to the affidavit, an FDLE investigator claims he determined through his “investigative resources” that an Internet Protocol, or IP, address associated with Jones’s Comcast account was the source of the emergency text message.
An IP address identifies the apparent location that an Internet connection was made but doesn’t prove that Jones sent the text message, according to IT experts.
Jones denies any involvement.
“I always knew they’d come for me someday. It’s just been so long that I started feeling safe again.”
Follow Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon on Twitter: @alemzs
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