Rebekah Jones, the Florida data scientist embroiled in a dispute with the state’s Republican governor over the handling of coronavirus figures, had her home raided on Monday by armed police who confiscated her computers.
In a stream of posts on Twitter, Jones posted a video of the raid that showed state police carrying handguns escorting her out of her Tallahassee home. She can be heard saying: “He just pointed a gun at my children,” with her husband and two children apparently upstairs at the time.
Jones claimed in her tweets that the raid was the work of Ron DeSantis, the governor with whom she has clashed repeatedly since she was fired by the state’s department of health in May in a row over Covid-19 data. She compared the incident to sending “the gestapo”, adding: “This is what happens to scientists who do their job honestly. This is what happens to people who speak truth to power.”
The Florida department of law enforcement confirmed they had entered Jones’s house on a search warrant. But in a statement the department said the action was related to a recent computer hack of the health department website, in which emergency response coordinators were sent an unauthorised message.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the message urged the coordinators to “speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. Be a hero. Speak out before it’s too late.”
On Monday night, Jones appeared on CNN and denied that she was the author of the unauthorised message. She said she last had access to any computer system within the state was six months ago, adding: “I’m not a hacker, I’m not that tech savvy.”
She told CNN she had come to the conclusion that the raid had been motivated by a desire to root out her source within the state bureaucracy, which is why police took away her phone. “On my phone is every communication I have ever had with someone who works with the state who has come to me in confidence and told me things that could get them fired,” she said.
The scientist had a direct message for the governor: “DeSantis needs to worry less about what I’m writing about and more about the people who are sick and dying in his state. Doing this to me will not stop me from reporting the data, ever.”
Jones was dismissed from her job running Florida’s Covid-19 database on the same day that DeSantis ordered the opening up of the state following lockdown measures. The decision to allow beaches, restaurants, cinemas and other public places to reopen was blamed for a later surge in cases of infection.
Jones said she was removed from the post because she had resisted efforts to censor the data she was presenting on the state’s official coronavirus site. Since her ousting, she has compiled her own daily tally of coronavirus cases in Florida that is more detailed than the state’s own database. She has recently expanded her work to include information on cases in schools nationwide.
In an interview with the Guardian in August, she said: “They’re not listening to the scientists, they’ve no plan to release data, they’re just going to let everybody fend for themselves.”
Referring to the official line that she was dismissed for insubordination, she said: “If I was insubordinate to say I’m not going to manipulate data, to say it’s safe to reopen when it’s not, then, yes, I wear insubordination as a badge of honor.”
DeSantis has followed a similar approach to the pandemic as Donald Trump. Like the US president, the Florida governor has claimed success in his handling of the disease even when the statistics have screamed otherwise.
On Monday, the state’s own official data recorded 7,711 new cases of Covid-19. The state has now endured 1,065,785 instances of infection – the third-highest number in the country, behind California and Texas.
A total of 19,282 Floridians have died.