Sidd Bikkannavar, a natural born US-citizen and an employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on January 30 upon returning to the United States. At the time, Bikkannavar was returning from Santiago, Chile, where he had been pursuing his hobby of racing solar-powered cars. He is also enrolled in CBP’s Global Entry program, which normally allows those who have undergone a background check to expedite their entry into the US. He has never visited any of the countries mentioned in Trump’s executive order and has worked at JPL for 10 years.
After landing at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, CBP officials detained Bikkannavar after scanning his passport. While held in a back room, agents asked him questions about his travels and his personal life before pressuring him to give them access to his phone, which was officially NASA property.
“I was cautiously telling him I wasn’t allowed to give it out, because I didn’t want to seem like I was not cooperating,” Bikkannavar said. “I told him I’m not really allowed to give the passcode; I have to protect access. But he insisted they had the authority to search it.”
Federal protections prohibit agents from manually searching devices on the basis of someone’s race or natural origin. While courts have upheld customs agents’ power to manually search devices at the border, searches made solely on the basis of race or natural origin remain illegal. Although travelers may be detained should they decline to provide customs agents with their phone’s PIN, they are not legally required to do so.
Under considerable pressure, Bikkannavar relented to the demands from CBP officials, who left the room with his phone for 30 minutes. He says he was never told why he was detained and still does not know what agents did with his data.