Jan 19, 2021 - Health

Florida police arrest data scientist who challenged state on COVID-19 dashboard

 In this photo illustration the Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard is seen displayed on a computer screen.

Florida's COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard displayed on a computer screen. Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Rebekah Jones, a former Florida health department data scientist who says she was wrongly fired last year, has been charged with one count of offenses against users of computers, computer systems, computer networks and electronic devices, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Driving the news: Jones turned herself in Sunday night after a warrant was issued for her arrest. Authorities raided her home last month, causing outcry online after she tweeted a video of the incident.

  • At the time, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) told local news outlets that it began an investigation on Nov. 10 "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."

Catch up quick: Jones was fired last year over what she said was refusing to "manipulate data" for the state, per the Tallahassee Diplomat.

  • The Florida Health Department has called Jones' initial allegations of data manipulation "patently false."
  • A spokesperson for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) told the Miami Herald in May 2020 that Jones was removed from her position for “a repeated course of insubordination," which included modifying the department's COVID-19 dashboard.
  • Jones later created her own coronavirus case tracker as an alternative to the state's COVID-19 dashboard.

What they're saying: "The raid was based on a lie. Still, the state has issued a warrant for my arrest - even though the 'crime' is not related to the warrant, the scope of the warrant, and they didn't wait for a third party to review confidential information on my computers," Jones tweeted Saturday.

  • "The new allegation was issued the day after a Tallahassee judge told police that if they're not investigating a crime, they had to return my equipment. They didn't find proof of anything related to the warrant, so they invented something new to come after me for in retaliation," she added.
  • "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. The Governor will not win his war on science and free speech. He will not silence those who speak out."
  • Upon her release after posting bail Monday, she told reporters she had just tested positive for COVID-19, per CNN.

The FDLE did not immediately respond to Axios' request for comment, but in a statement to the WSJ, officials said, "Evidence retrieved from a search warrant on December 7 shows that Jones illegally accessed the system sending a message to approximately 1,750 people and downloaded confidential FDOH data and saved it to her devices."

For the record: Jones has denied sending the message or illegally accessing any restricted site, the WSJ noted.

The big picture: DeSantis has faced criticism over his handling of the pandemic.

  • An investigation by the South Florida Sun Sentinel, published in early December, reported that DeSantis' "administration engaged in a pattern of spin and concealment that misled the public on the gravest health threat the state has ever faced."

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