TALLAHASSEE — Florida Department of Health employee-turned-whistleblower Rebekah Jones turned herself in and was arrested late Sunday on a charge that she broke into a state messaging system and encouraged people to “speak up.”
State agents say Jones, 31, accessed the emergency messaging system multiple times and downloaded a spreadsheet with the contact information of more than 19,000 Floridians who provided email addresses and phone numbers to the state “for emergency contact purposes.”
Jones announced Saturday on Twitter that there was a warrant for her arrest. She turned herself in to the Leon County Detention Facility and was booked on a charge of unauthorized access of a computer system, a third-degree felony that carries a sentence of up to 5 years in prison.
She was freed Monday after posting $2,500 bail following a court appearance, according to her attorney Steve Dobson.
The state asked that Jones be prohibited from accessing the internet and her computer and have no contact with witnesses or people whose personal information was acquired through the download. The judge agreed to restrict her from accessing the State of Florida website but denied the other requests. The state also wanted Jones to wear a GPS tracker, which the judge also rejected.
“We are going to defend this case vigorously,’' Dobson said. “She has maintained her innocence from the beginning.”
Jones drove to Tallahassee over the weekend, after relocating to Maryland in December, but it took longer than expected, Dobson said, because she felt very sick. After being booked into the Leon County jail, Jones was tested for the coronavirus, he said, and on Monday she learned she has tested positive.
Dobson said he had advised his client to drive and avoid the airport because the state insisted on issuing the arrest warrant before she returned to Tallahassee and that meant she risked being arrested before arriving to Florida.
The Nov. 10 message, obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, urged state employees dealing with the coronavirus pandemic 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.”
Jones, a former state employee who has since become one of the most prominent critics of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ coronavirus response, has denied sending the message.
After that message was sent to about 1,700 state employees, Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents say they identified the Internet Protocol address, or IP address, that logged into the system and sent the group message. Agents obtained a search warrant for Comcast Cable Communications to track down whoever was using that IP address.
Comcast tracked the IP address to Jones’ Tallahassee home, according to an arrest affidavit. Then agents raided her home on Dec. 7, obtained Jones’ computer and said they later discovered evidence the device accessed the state messaging system twice on Nov. 10, the affidavit said.
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Agents said they also found the computer downloaded from the emergency system an Excel spreadsheet with the contact information of 19,182 people across the state. The list included their names, organizations, titles, counties, email addresses and phone numbers for use in emergencies, the affidavit said. The list is the Department of Health’s “intellectual property,” according to the affidavit, but does not appear to include confidential information.
State police said they also found two previous messages sent to state employees, including one that said, “It’s time to speak out before another 17,000 are dead. Text Rebekah.”
The messaging system Jones is accused of accessing is used by multiple state agencies to coordinate the Department of Health’s medical response. Jones had access to the emergency messaging system when she worked as an analyst for the Florida Department of Health, according to the affidavit.
Although the system also includes sensitive medical and epidemiological records that are exempt from public records, according to state police, the department was apparently using lax security measures to protect the information.
The affidavit doesn’t say how Jones would have been able to access the system. In November, the department described someone “hacking” the system, but it was later revealed that the Department of Health had widely shared the login and password over the years, including posting them online.
After the Nov. 10 messages, the department imposed two-factor authentication for users, an enhanced security protocol that requires users to verify their identity before logging in.
Jones’ action “caused doubt and confusion amongst many of the working groups that share the multi-user account ... as they were unsure whether this message was sent from official personnel,” her arrest affidavit states.
Dobson said that the case “is just beginning” and he could not speculate on why anyone would attempt to break into Jones’ computer in order to send the message urging people to “speak up” about the coronavirus in Florida.
“It is important to remember these are allegations,’' he said. “We all know the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee...You don’t know with the internet who can access your computer.”
He called the state’s vigorous prosecution of Jones, which included a request to extradite her from her new home in Maryland, “an overreach.”
“They are so concerned with Rebekah Jones when there are really serious crimes being committed,’' he said.
“It’s very ironic. They have devoted all these resources to go after her” with an allegation that she broke into a state system to urge people to “tell the truth,’' he said. “That’s a bad thing in today’s world, isn’t it?”
The former state data scientist tweeted Saturday that state agents had found “no evidence” implicating her in the messages and that the Dec. 7 search warrant “was based on a lie.”
Before she turned herself in, Jones tweeted this Sunday afternoon: “Censored by the state of Florida until further notice.”
Jones sued the state last month to retrieve her computers and other electronic equipment seized by officers and said state police violated her constitutional rights of free speech and due process.
Jones was once one of the bright spots of the Gov. Ron DeSantis administration, after she built the state’s online dashboard of COVID-19 cases while working as an analyst for the Florida Department of Health.
The dashboard was applauded by federal officials for its thoroughness and transparency in the early weeks of the pandemic, praise that DeSantis used as a defense against criticism over the secrecy and confusion that dogged his coronavirus response.
But in May, Jones was fired from the department for what a DeSantis spokesperson called “a repeated course of insubordination.”
Jones filed a whistleblower complaint and said she was reassigned, then fired, after objecting to an order to remove key data from the dashboard. She accused the DeSantis administration of trying to downplay the outbreak in rural areas ahead of his plans to reopen the state. Emails the Tampa Bay Times obtained confirmed some of the details. Department of Health officials have denied the accusations.
Since then, Jones has become one of the most prominent DeSantis administration critics, gaining more than 300,000 followers on Twitter and raising more than $500,000 through two GoFundMe accounts.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has continued to be criticized for his insular management style and failure to explain his administration’s COVID-19 response. His administration has been sued by media outlets multiple times for not releasing public information, and elected officials and health care industry groups continue to plead for more transparency about his decisions around COVID-19 and vaccine distribution.