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U.S.-Born Scientist Detained, Forced To Unlock NASA Phone at Border

U.S.-Born Scientist Detained, Forced To Unlock NASA Phone at Border

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.

"In each incident that I've seen, the subjects have been shown a Blue Paper that says CBP has legal authority to search phones at the border, which gives them the impression that they're obligated to unlock the phone, which isn't true," says Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Florida. (Bikkanavar recalls an agent presented him with a document titled "Inspection of Electronic Devices" and explained CBP had the authority to search his phone.)

When CBP officials returned his phone, Bikkannavar turned it off, knowing he would need to take it straight to the cyber security team at JPL. Upon returning home to Los Angeles, he informed his superiors about the breach. JPL has not released a statement regarding the incident, but Bikkannavar noted the cyber security team is unhappy about the breach of privacy. (NASA employees are obligated to protect work-related information at all costs.) Bikkannavar has since received a new phone from his employer and a new number.

BikkannavarSidd Bikkannavar at one of his racing events. (Credit: Source.)

Bikkannavar notes that his interactions with CBP officials were always professional, even friendly. Officials were able to confirm everything he told them through his Global Entry background checks. But the incident has left him "shaken," he admits, and he is still unsure why CBP agents singled him out for an electronic search, though he understands his name, which has roots in Southern India, is foreign. "It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something dangerous in, because they didn't even touch the bags,"  Bikkannavar said. "They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there. You can say, 'Okay well maybe it's about making sure I'm not a dangerous person,' but they have all the information to verify that."

CBP has not responded to requests for comment. Last, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed complaints against CBP for demanding that Muslim American citizens give up their social media information when they return home from traveling overseas.