Border Agent Demands NASA Scientist Unlock Phone Before Entering the Country

Posted February 16, 2017

As a result of the authorities going through his phone, Bikkannavar's employees had to run forensics on the phone to determine what CBP/homeland security might have taken, or whether they installed anything on the device.

A US-born NASA scientist of Indian-origin was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials and was not permitted to enter the country unless he unlocked his PIN-protected work phone.

Bikkannavar, who is an employee of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), surrendered his cellular device and password, after which he was sent to a holding area where other detainees were present. Trump had issued the executive order banning Muslims to travel to the United States.

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. "I didn't really want to explore all those consequences", he says.

He tells The Verge: "He (CBP agent) takes me into an interview room and sort of explains that I'm entering the country and they need to search my possessions to make sure I'm not bringing in anything risky".

Bikkannavar is a natural-born US citizen 2) who has had a background check through the Global Entry program and 3) hasn't visited any of the countries targeted by Donald Trump's Muslim ban. According to a CBP document about the inspection of electronic devices given to Bikkannavar, CBP can make copies of the information on electronic devices.

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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.

He had not visited any of the countries mentioned in Donald Trump's Muslim travel ban, but Bikkannavar told the Verge that agents may have become suspicious about his family name, which is southern Indian.

"Just to be clear - I'm a US-born citizen and NASA engineer, travelling with a valid U.S. passport".

In addition, he has never visited the countries on the immigration ban, and he's 10-year employee of a major USA federal agency. "I initially refused, since it's a (NASA)-issued phone and I must protect access", Bikkannavar wrote. He has also deleted his Facebook page until he can ensure it "wasn't also comprised". "You can say, "Okay well maybe it's about making sure I'm not a unsafe person", but they have all the information to verify that". Earlier this week, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly issued a statement in response, telling the House Homeland Security Committee, "We want to get on their social media, with passwords: What do you do, what do you say?"

Bikkannavar, not wanting to be detained any further, handed over the phone and access; the agent left and returned 30 minutes later. They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there. "Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban", he added.

While the CBP does have authority to search devices, you aren't obligated to unlock your device. Since the incident, JPL has given Bikkannavar a new phone with a new number.