US-Born NASA Scientist Detained at Border & Forced to Unlock Phone

US-Born NASA Scientist Detained at Border & Forced to Unlock Phone

Sidd Bikkannavar was detained on Jan. 30 at the U.S. border and denied entry into the country until he unlocked his pin-protected phone.

Bikkannavar is a U.S.-born citizen who has worked with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for 10 years. He traveled to South America on Jan. 15 to engage in his hobby of racing solar-powered cars.

However, upon returning to the U.S., he was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), questioned rigorously about his background, had his phone confiscated, and was told he would not be released until the phone was unlocked so agents could copy its data.

Bikkannavar was born in the U.S., holds a valid passport, and had not visited any of the countries mentioned in Donald Trump’s executive order ‘travel ban.’ tweet

Being that the phone was issued by NASA JPL, Bikkannavar was hesitant to give the officers access to the confidential information within. The agents continued to insist that they had the authority to obtain his pin, and Bikkannavar eventually did unlock the phone. Agents then left with the device and did not return for 30 minutes. The officers never inspected any of his luggage.

Bikkannavar was born in the U.S., holds a valid passport, and had never visited any of the countries mentioned in Donald Trump’s executive order “travel ban.” Bikkannavar is also enrolled in Global Entry – a program though CBP that expedites entry into the U.S. for a limited number of individuals who have already undergone extensive background checks.

In an interview with The Verge, Bikkannavar said he is unsure why he was singled out by CPB. “It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something dangerous in, because they didn’t even touch the bags,” he said. Bakkannavar expressed a concern that perhaps he was stopped due to his “foreign” surname, which is South Indian in origin.

If the “foreign” nature of his name is why he was stopped and detained by CBP, this brings to light a massive concern of profiling that may be increasingly common practice at the U.S. border.

Bikkannavar is one of many whose travel has been impacted by Donald Trump’s executive order which, until it was suspended by the courts, banned entry into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen). Though the executive order is now legally inactive, drastic increases in incidences at the border continue to be reported.

CBP can confiscate one’s device and detain individuals for failing to comply, but there is no legal obligation to surrender one’s pin or passcode. tweet

This January, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed complaints against CBP over multiple instances where Muslim-American citizens were pressured to surrender their social media account information and passwords upon returning to the country after being abroad.

In an interview with The Verge, Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of CAIR in Florida stated, “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.”

The increasingly prolific presence of occurrences like Bikkannavar’s bring into question whether or not racial and religious profiling has become more common place within CBP. tweet

Manually searching someone’s phone on the basis of their race, national origin, or religion is illegal. CBP can confiscate one’s device and detain individuals for failing to comply, but there is no legal obligation to surrender one’s pin or passcode. Despite this, Homeland Secretary John Kelly said this that anyone coming into the U.S. may be asked for their passcodes, stating, “If they don’t want to cooperate then you don’t come in.”

The increasingly prolific presence of occurrences like Bikkannavar’s bring into question whether racial and religious profiling has become more common place within CBP. Has Trump’s executive order made such methods seem more permissive, or are there more insidious directives being given directly to CBP which encourage or even mandate the use of such tactics?

If you are traveling and experience problems at the border, memorize your local ACLU and CAIR chapter phone numbers. Contact them immediately for assistance. Refer to Muslim Girl’s Muslim Ban Guidebook for more links and resources.

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