Former state employee Rebekah Jones is likely to face a challenging legal battle, experts say.
Fired for insubordination after claiming the state was manipulating COVID-19 case data, Jones now faces a felony charge after someone illegally accessed state systems in November.
During a raid last month, state police recovered Jones' computer. Authorities then conducted a forensic analysis and allegedly found cookies -- digital fingerprints -- showing a user illegally breached state systems and downloaded contact info for nearly 20,000 people.
According to the arrest affidavit, a short time later, someone using Jones' IP address sent a message to more than 1,700 state employees, urging them to speak up.
"It's time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead," the message read. "You know this is wrong. You don't have to be apart of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it's too late."
Derek Smart is a video game designer who has done private digital forensic work. He said the cookies, in particular, pose a challenge for Jones.
"It's a serious problem," Smart said, creator of 3000AD, Inc. "It's a very serious problem. People have gone to prison for less."
Cookies, Smart said, can be recovered even if deleted and store data like time, date, even a user's name. The Fort Lauderdale-based computer expert believed the evidence might be hard to dispute.
"Short of proving that somebody else used the device, either locally or remotely, I don't see how she gets out of this," Smart said.
Data security attorney Al Leiva isn't involved in Jones' case but thinks her attorneys will now focus on discrediting the evidence collected.
"They’re going to have to poke some holes in what the state is alleging here," Leiva said.
Most likely, a defense expert will review the evidence, the South Florida attorney said. He believed they would look at whether police made flaws during analysis or had a chain of custody issue.
"There are various things that can be brought up," Leiva said. "It’s really going to come down to the evidence the state has collected."
Jones has denied the charge, a third-degree felony, and her attorney has promised a vigorous defense. If convicted, she faces up to five years in prison.
Jones has also filed a civil suit against the state. She has alleged her constitutional rights were violated and that the December raid at her home was an act of retaliation for speaking out.