Insights & Analyses

US Customs detained American-born NASA scientist until he unlocked his government-issued phone

February 13, 2017

A scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory was one of the incoming citizens held up by President Trump’s hastily implemented travel policies, even though he was born in the United States and was not traveling from one of the banned nations.

Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection reportedly detained Sidd Bikkannavar and informed them they had the authority to search his phone. Even though Bikkannavar’s phone is NASA property and could contain classified information, officials refused to let him leave until he provided the PIN number to unlock his phone, threatening “detention and seizure” if he refused to cooperate.

Once the official had access to the handset, they left for 30 minutes to inspect it. Bikkannavar eventually had his phone returned to him, but he does not know what border patrol agents did with it — or what information they accessed — while it was in their possession.

In addition to being an American-born citizen, Bikkannavar is also enrolled in the Global Entry program, where citizens agree to a background check to expedite security checks when traveling. He was also returning to the U.S. from Santiago, Chile — which is not one of the seven Muslim-majority countries affected by the Trump administration’s travel ban.

The ban was put into place in late January, without warning or preparation, leading to confusion, mistakes, and widespread protests. Bikkannavar was detained at the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Tex., on Monday, Jan. 30, soon after the ban went into effect.

The travel ban has since been blocked by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, albeit temporarily. Trump has vowed to appeal.

The executive order barred foreign nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen from entering the country for 90 days. In addition, refugees from those countries are not allowed to come to America over a 120-day period, while Syrian refugees are unwelcome indefinitely.

Under Trump, the Department of Homeland Security — which oversees U.S. Customs — has vowed to take a hardline stance on border security. Last week, DHS Secretary John F. Kelly told U.S. Congress that his organization is considering requiring visa applicants from the seven Muslim-majority countries to provide login credentials and passwords in order to gain entry into the U.S.

And in December, U.S. Customs began asking foreigners from visa waiver countries for their social media accounts.