Border Agents Detained a NASA Scientist Until He Unlocked His Phone

Border Agents Detained a NASA Scientist Until He Unlocked His Phone

"It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something risky in, because they didn't even touch the bags", he said. On my way home to the United States last weekend, I was detained by Homeland Security and held with others who were stranded under the Muslim ban.

A week removed from a story about a Canadian Muslim denied entry after border patrol launched into a religious line of questioning, we hear about a US-born JPL employee who was detained by officials until he gave up access to his NASA-provided phone. Since this means the phone is technically the property of NASA, Bikkannavar is expected to protect its contents.

The travel ban imposed by President Donald Trump, which a federal court recently refused to reinstate, saw numerous visitors to the USA being demanded to hand over their phones and social media account details.

His ordeal also took place at a time of renewed focus on the question of how much access CBP can have to a traveller's digital information, whether or not they're USA citizens: in January, 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 overseas.

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On Jan 30, Bikkannavar who was returning from Santiago, Chile was pulled aside by Customs and Border Protection officers at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, and asked to turn in his phone along with its PIN code.

He finally turned in his phone and the access PIN, and he was detained until the officers finished copying the data and returned it to him. Bikkannavar is a member of Global Entry, a CBP program that "allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers" upon arrival in the U.S. Since Bikkannavar travels a lot between work and his solar-powered vehicle racing hobby, the program allowed for easier travel.

The CBP officials asked to unlock his phone citing "Inspection of Electronic Devices" manual that detailed consequences over failure to comply with the request. However, he was later returned his phone and allowed to continue his journey home. He neither belongs to any of the countries placed under travel ban nor has he visited any of them. Just to be clear - I'm a US-born citizen and NASA engineer, traveling with a valid U.S. passport.

Nevertheless, Bikkannavar was not allowed to leave until he gave CBP his PIN.

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"I don't know what to think about this", Bikkannavar said.

In January, the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed complaints against CBP for demanding Muslim American Citizens to turn in their social media information when returning to the U.S. Also, last week Homeland Security secretary John Kelly said visitors may be asked to give up passwords to their social media accounts. The phone was returned in about 30 minutes. "They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there", he says. In the update he said that JPL has issued him a new phone and a new number. Sometimes I get stopped and searched, but never anything like this. "They're not obligated to unlock the phone".

Bikkannavar mused that it might be his foreign-sounding name that set off alarm bells, or maybe it was just a very poorly timed coincidence that it occurred three days after the Trump travel ban was enacted.

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