Scientist detained by US Customs despite being US citizen

Sid Bikkannavar was in South America for a solar-powered car racing event

News Desk February 13, 2017
NASA Scientist Sid Bikkannavar. PHOTO: THE VERGE

A US citizen was detained at the George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas on Tuesday and forced to unlock his NASA-issued phone.

A racer by hobby, Sid Bikkannavar left for South America for a solar-powered car racing event a week before Trump administration took over the White House and signed executive orders - he claims being detained for questioning upon his arrival by the US Customs and Border Patrol – who refused to release him unless he gave up his phone and access PIN.

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Bikkannavar is a natural-born US citizen enrolled in Global Entry – a program that allows expedited entry to the country – and a decade old employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He neither belongs to any of the countries placed under travel ban nor has he visited any of them.

“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.”

“It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something dangerous in, because they didn’t even touch the bags. They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there,” he says. “You can say, ‘Okay well maybe it’s about making sure I’m not a dangerous person,’ but they have all the information to verify that.”

The NASA scientist claims he was taken to a back room where he waited for 40 minutes until his name was called. “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 said. “I asked a question, ‘Why was I chosen?’ And he wouldn’t tell me.”

The CBP officials asked to unlock his phone citing “Inspection of Electronic Devices” manual that detailed consequences over failure to comply with the request.  “It mentioned detention and seizure,” he said.

“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,” Bikkannavar told The Verge. “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.”

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Left with no choice but to cooperate, Bikkannavar gave up his phone’s security code to an officer who left the room with device for half an hour.

Once released, Bikannavar returned to his workplace in Los Angeles, informed his superiors and handed over the phone to cyber-security team at the JPL – who did not seem very happy about the incident. Due to the nature of the work, NASA employee are obligated to protect work-related information, no matter how minuscule, the Verge reported.

Despite being unsure why he was singled out, Bikkannavar emphasised that the interaction was “incredibly professional and friendly”. He realises that his roots and name often triggers excessive vetting. “Sometimes I get stopped and searched, but never anything like this. Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban.”

Correction: An earlier version of the article erroneously stated the scientist was Muslim. The error is regretted. EDITOR.

This article originally appeared in The Verge.

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