Why would Homeland Security demand the cell phone of an American-born JPL engineer who has never visited any of the seven countries on President Donald Trump’s travel ban?
So far there are no answers, but that is exactly what happened to Sidd Bikkannavar, who left the country for two weeks, between the time Barack Obama left the White House and Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the US.
According to a post on his Facebook page on Feb. 5, Bikkannavar said he was placed in a room with cots while information was copied from his cell phone at George W. Bush International Airport in Houston.
“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,” he posted.
“CBP [Customs and Border Protection] 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 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.”
JPL is owned by NASA and managed by Caltech.
Bikkannavar works on wavefront sensing and control, a type of optics technology that will be used on telescopes.
Bikkannavar is a member of the Global Entry program, which is administered by the CBP and is supposed to allow
“expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.” The program requires “a rigorous background check and in-person interview before enrollment.”
But that program didn’t help Bikkannavar when he encountered customs agent, who are employed by CBP — the same agency that guaranteed Bikkannavar easy reentrance into the county through Global Entry.
After his passport was scanned and he was taken into a room and questioned about where he had traveled, agents then demanded his phone.
Initially, Bikkannavar refused to turn it over due to the sensitive data on the device, but later complied and immediately reported the incident to his superiors.
JPL had been running forensics on the phone to see what data had been compromised or added to the device. He also took down his Facebook page and later removed the post which the Pasadena Weekly accessed through a cache of his page. JPL, he wrote, eventually issued him a new phone.