CLAIM

CBP seized the phone of American-born JPL scientist Sidd Bikkannavar and demanded access to its stored data.

UNPROVEN

RATING

UNPROVEN

ORIGIN

On 5 February 2017, American-born NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) scientist Sidd Bikkannavar published a Facebook post asserting that he was detained by United States Customs & Border Protection (CBP) officials while he was returning to the U.S. from Chile, who seized his phone and demanded access to its stored data:

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.

Bikkannavar spoke to The Verge about the incident in an article published on 12 February 2017 and provided further information about the contents of his Facebook post (which he had apparently deleted):

Bikkannavar is a seasoned international traveller — but his return home to the US this time around was anything but routine. Bikkannavar left for South America on January 15th, under the Obama Administration. He flew back from Santiago, Chile to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas on Monday, January 30th, just over a week into the Trump Administration.

Bikkannavar says he was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol and pressured to give the CBP agents his phone and access PIN. Since the phone was issued by NASA, it may have contained sensitive material that wasn’t supposed to be shared. Bikkannavar’s phone was returned to him after it was searched by CBP, but he doesn’t know exactly what information officials might have taken from the device … Seemingly, Bikkannavar’s reentry into the country should not have raised any flags. Not only is he a natural-born US citizen, but he’s also enrolled in Global Entry — a program through CBP that allows individuals who have undergone background checks to have expedited entry into the country. He hasn’t visited the countries listed in the immigration ban and he has worked at JPL — a major center at a US federal agency — for 10 years.

“I don’t know what to think about this,” Bikkannavar recently told The Verge in a phone call. “… I was caught a little off guard by the whole thing.”

Bikkannavar says he arrived into Houston and was detained by CBP after his passport was scanned. A CBP officer escorted Bikkannavar to a back room, and told him to wait for additional instructions. About five other travelers who had seemingly been affected by the ban were already in the room, asleep on cots that were provided for them.

Bikkannavar maintained that a CBP officer brought him to a detention room and produced an “Inspection of Electronic Devices” document, requesting access to the contents of his mobile phone. Bikkannavar said he was reluctant to comply with the request because the device was the property of NASA, but “was not allowed to leave until he gave CBP his PIN”:

“He 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 dangerous,” he says. The CBP officer started asking questions about where Bikkannavar was coming from, where he lives, and his title at work. It’s all information the officer should have had since Bikkannavar is enrolled in Global Entry. “I asked a question, ‘Why was I chosen?’ And he wouldn’t tell me,” he says.

The officer also presented Bikkannavar with a document titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices” and explained that CBP had authority to search his phone. Bikkannavar did not want to hand over the device, because it was given to him by JPL and is technically NASA property. He even showed the officer the JPL barcode on the back of phone. Nonetheless, CBP asked for the phone and the access PIN. “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,” says Bikkannavar. “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.”

According to Bikkannavar, he immediately powered the device off and notified NASA higher-ups:

Bikkannavar can’t comment on what may or may not have been on the phone, but he says the cybersecurity team at JPL was not happy about the breach. Bikkannavar had his phone on hand while he was traveling in case there was a problem at work that needed his attention, but NASA employees are obligated to protect work-related information, no matter how minuscule. We reached out to JPL for comment, but the center didn’t comment on the event directly.

National security issues make the details of this account difficult to confirm independently.

Sources:

Grush, Loren.   “A US-Born NASA Scientist Was Detained at the Border Until He Unlocked His Phone.”
The Verge.   12 February 2017.

Melchner, Emily.   “From Space To Solar Car Races.”
Principia Alumni.   Accessed 13 February 2017.