Sidd Bikkannavar is a natural-born US citizen who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab. He’s also a prolific traveler who found himself reentering the United States right as the controversial immigration ban took effect. For unexplained reasons, he was detained and border agents demanded access to his NASA-issued phone which could contain highly sensitive information.
After he was released, Bikkannavar shut down his Facebook until security issues could be worked out. When he was sure it was safe, he posted this explanation of the events that led to his social media blackout:
Sorry for the absence. On my way home to the US last weekend, I was detained by Homeland Security and held with others who were stranded under the Muslim ban. CBP officers seized my phone and wouldn’t release me until I gave my access PIN for them to copy the data. I initially refused, since it’s a JPL-issued phone (Jet Propulsion Lab property) and I must protect access. Just to be clear - I’m a US-born citizen and NASA engineer, traveling with a valid US passport. Once they took both my phone and the access PIN, they returned me to the holding area with the cots and other sleeping detainees until they finished copying my data.
I’m back home, and JPL has been running forensics on the phone to determine what CBP/Homeland Security might have taken, or whether they installed anything on the device. I’ve also been working with JPL legal counsel. I removed my Facebook page until I was sure this account wasn’t also compromised by the intrusion into my phone and connected apps. I hope no one was worried. JPL issued me a new phone and new phone number, which I’ll give out soon.
The Verge spoke with Bikkannavar and he explained that he was just returning to the U.S. after spending weeks in Patagonia racing solar-powered cars. It’s a hobby that landed him on a Chilean racing team.
He landed at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas on Monday, January 30th. After his passport was scanned he was taken to a back room and detained. Bikkannavar says that no one would explain why he had been singled out but an agent asked him questions about his travels and his personal life. Then he was handed a document titled, “Inspection of Electronic Devices” and told that U.S. Customs and Border Patrol was legally allowed to search his phone.
Bikkannavar insisted that he wasn’t allowed to do that because the phone belonged to NASA’s JPL and he’s required to protect access. Agents insisted and he finally relented. He still does not know why they stopped him or what they did with his data.
Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of CAIR Florida, tells The Verge that most people who are shown the form giving CBP authority to search their device believe that they have an obligation to help the agents. “They’re not obligated to unlock the phone,” she says.
Considering the fact that tighter travel restrictions are intended to make the U.S. safer, it seems odd to allow border agents to pressure a government employee to reveal secure information. It would seem that Bikkannavar’s case had nothing to do with Trump’s Muslim ban since he wasn’t traveling from one of the restricted countries. Is this just an average day in the life of airport security? CBP isn’t saying. We’ve reached out for comment and will update this post when we have more information.