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Raid on Data Scientist’s Home Underscores Outdated Technology Laws and Unjustifiable Police Use of Force

According to reporting by Patricia Mazzei of The New York Times, Rebekah D. Jones, 31, worked for the Florida Department of Health until May 2020 when she disagreed with the state’s reporting information on coronavirus deaths and confirmed case counts in rural counties. She claims she was asked to manipulate the data to justify lifting lockdown restrictions then in place to contain the spread of the virus. State officials have stated that Jones was fired because she made unilateral decisions to modify the state’s virus dashboard.

“Our data is available. Our data is transparent,” said Gov. Ron DeSantis regarding the circumstances around Jones’ termination. “So any insinuation otherwise is just typical partisan narrative trying to be spun.”

By June, Jones built her own dashboard to rival the state’s, funded largely by private donations to her GoFundMe account from her (now) hundreds of thousands of social media followers. Publicity over her termination has resulted in bad press for the governor, who touted Florida’s early success in battling the virus, yet had to rebuild trust in the reported data after the summer, and then late fall, surges of the virus.

This was the background against the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s (“FDLE”) raid on the Jones home on December 7. Police bodycam footage shows that nobody responded to agents knocking on her door for 23 minutes. Jones’ home security camera then captured agents entering her home with weapons drawn, ordering her and her husband to exit the home, and ascending the stairs to the bedrooms of the children, an 11-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. Jones posted a 31-second clip to Twitter showing portions of the raid, including her yelling, “He just pointed a gun at my children!”

“This isn’t really unexpected,” Jones said later about the raid. “You take down a governor, he’s going to come for you. Six months ago, I was just a scientist trying to do my job.”

DeSantis has denied that the raid had anything to do with Jones’ dismissal but rather said that it was linked to an investigation about messages sent over an internal emergency alert system designed solely for government employees and contractors working on the state’s virus response effort. “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead,” read one of the messages sent on November 10. “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 denied having sent these messages saying that, as a data scientist, she would never have rounded down the number of deaths, which were 17,460 at the time the messages were sent.

According to the affidavit supporting the search warrant filed by the FDLE, agents linked the Internet Protocol (“IP”) address of the computer where the messages originated back to Jones’ residence and that her “access” of this system was “unauthorized” since the access occurred after her dismissal.

Jill Filipovic, an author and journalist based in New York, described the raid in an opinion piece as a “military raid.”

“It was hyper-aggressive and totally unnecessary maneuver for carrying out a search warrant related to alleged computer crime,” said Filipovic.

In a public statement, FDLE Commissioner Richard L. Swearingen said that “Agents afforded Ms. Jones ample time to come to the door and resolve this matter in a civil and professional manner.”

This statement does not explain why Jones wasn’t simply asked to meet with investigators regarding the incident, nor what circumstances agents used to justify the possible use of deadly force against her or her children. Filipovic continued, “How in any rational scenario can police justify such a guns-drawn, hyper-aggressive entry to make a simple search in the home of a woman they have no reason to believe will react with violence?”

Aside from the issue of law enforcement’s overreliance on force in a year marred by the death of Breonna Taylor – who was also killed in a police raid gone wrong – the warrant itself relied on uncertainties that should have been better scrutinized, said Cindy Cohen of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Cohen describes the Florida Computer Crime law as a failure because of its “vagueness and overbreadth.” The law mirrors language from the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which has been used to prosecute a wide variety actions, and whose language may criminalize the simple act of allowing a person other than yourself to login to your account on a system like Facebook. The Florida law defines “unauthorized access” to a computer or network as a felony, but the law fails to define what kind of access is “unauthorized.”

Importantly in this case, the internal alert system used to send the messages was accessible from the Internet, and users of the emergency alert group account shared the same username and password – both of which may have also been publicly available. Also pertinent was the fact that, according to Cohen, “there was no technical or other notice to Ms. Jones that sending a message to the list was not allowed.”

Similarly concerning was agents’ reliance on an IP address to target Jones’ home for a search. The affidavit claims the agents used “investigative resources” to trace the IP to her home. This may have involved contacting her internet provider. However, police use of imprecise public reverse IP lookup tools has resulted in raids targeted at mistaken locations. Terms like “investigative resources” should not be used to obfuscate the lack of diligence on the part of investigators given the magnitude of the consequences of error.

Police frequently refer to IP addresses as “fingerprints,” implying that they are unique to an individual. However, when multiple persons access the internet from a residence, they all share the same IP address. And this doesn’t even cover scenarios where the home’s wireless network isn’t protected or when the home’s network or computer security is compromised by hackers or a virus. Thus, saying an IP address is like a “fingerprint” is a gross, and often misleading, oversimplification of a set of law enforcement decisions whose consequences directly impact a person’s rights and freedom.

These uncertainties, magnified by outdated laws and concerns of over-policing, amount to the necessity to question whether law enforcement’s response, to a series of messages encouraging people to act courageously and with integrity, should be so overwhelming and violent.

Filipovic summarized this by saying, “[W]e should ask why the police need to send a heavily armed team, guns drawn, to execute a search warrant in the house of a person suspected of a nonviolent crime. Why risk escalating a simple search into something terrifying and potentially lethal?” 

 

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