Agents raid U.S. coronavirus data scientist's home, confiscate hardware

(Reuters) - U.S. law enforcement agents on Monday raided the home of a top data scientist who helped build Florida state’s online COVID dashboard and alleged she was fired from her government job because she refused to manipulate data.

The home of Rebekah Jones in Tallahassee, Florida, was raided by agents executing a search warrant on suspicion that Jones hacked into a state Department of Health communications system, said Rick Swearingen, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Swearingen said agents “seized several devices that will be forensically analyzed.” Jones, in a Twitter post, said her phone “and all my hardware and tech” were confiscated.

An unauthorized text message was sent through the system last month to nearly 1,800 department employees, encouraging them to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” according to a report last month by the Tampa Bay Times, which obtained the message.

Swearingen said an investigation began last month after the state’s Department of Health filed a complaint saying it had been hacked. He said agents executed a search warrant at Jones’ home after investigators determined that the unauthorized message was sent from an IP address associated with her family internet account.

Jones, who has filed a whistleblower complaint against Florida, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. She told USA Today that she did not hack into any government system.

Jones told the Miami Herald that she thinks investigators are not after her - but are actually trying to find out which state employees have spoken with her since she was fired in May.

After she was fired, Jones created her own COVID dashboard that included more details - like hospital capacity - than the state itself was at times providing.

“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 told the Herald.


Jones has said she was dismissed because she would not manipulate data that would support the state’s reopening of the economy.

The office of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in May defended Jones’ firing, telling the Miami Herald she had been insubordinate on numerous occasions, including unilaterally making changes to the state’s COVID dashboard.

Jones posted home security camera footage of Monday’s raid on her Twitter account. It showed agents with weapons drawn, yelling at unseen people on a second floor to exit the home.

“They pointed a gun at my face. They pointed guns at my kids,” Jones wrote on Twitter.

Swearingen, in his written statement, denied that agents pointed guns at anyone in the house.

“This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly,” Jones wrote. “This is what happens to people who speak truth to power.”

Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; Editing by Leslie Adler and Raju Gopalakrishnan