Sidd Bikkannavar should not have raised any red flags with Customs and Border Patrol, much less should the U.S.-born scientist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab have been forced to fork over phone and social media passwords in order to return to the country after a trip to Chile.
But thanks to an abrupt, uncoordinated, and overly-broad travel ban implemented with an executive order from President Donald Trump, that’s exactly what happened — and Bikkannavar feels unsettled by the incident.
“I don’t know what to think about this,” the scientist with 10 years at JPL told The Verge by phone. “… I was caught a little off-guard by the whole thing.”
Bikkannavar traveled to South America on a multi-week vacation to pursue a personal hobby of racing solar-powered cars, and attended a race in Patagonia with a Chilean team he’d recently joined.
Departing under the Obama administration, the scientist faced a strikingly different atmosphere upon return to the administration of Trump and the chaos unfolding in the wake of tight restrictions on travel from certain predominantly Muslim nations.
Obviously, Chile didn’t make Trump’s ban list — but confusion among alphabet agencies suddenly tasked with interpreting the new law led to questionable detainments, the revocation of some 60,000 visas, and tragic splitting apart of families — even in cases where the long and complex visa screening procedure had been approved.
Enrolled in Global Entry, Bikkannavar — having undergone extensive background checks — should have been given expedited entry upon return from Santiago.
“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,” reports the Verge. “There, he works on ‘wavefront sensing and control,’ a type of optics technology that will be used on the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.”
Even credentials from the federal government weren’t enough to prevent harassment by border patrol, however, and after his passport was scanned, Bikkannavar was ushered into a back room where five others seemingly affected by the ban slept on cots. Forty minutes elapsed before an officer came to speak with the NASA scientist, and as he explained,
“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.”
Answers to the questions asked by the officer would have been readily available via Bikkannavar’s Global Entry information — job title, place of residence, where he’d traveled — but no further explanation was provided for the detainment.
“I asked a question, ‘Why was I chosen?’ And he wouldn’t tell me,” Bikkannavar explained.
A document titled Inspection of Electronic Devices was the only justification proffered for the search of the scientist’s phone and accounts, and when Bikkannavar tried to politely explain his device was considered property of NASA and should not be searched, his words fell on deaf ears.
According to the Verge, Bikkannavar showed the officer the phone’s JPL barcode — but that wasn’t sufficient and authorities insisted he give them the phone with its PIN code.
“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.”
In actuality, however, CBP agents don’t retain that broad an authority — and can only detain individuals who refuse for lengthy periods — though it appears officers have been using a bit of hollow trickery to obtain international travelers’ electronic devices and passwords.
“In each incident that I’ve seen, the subjects have been shown a Blue Paper that says CBP has legal authority to search phones at the border, which gives them the impression that they’re obligated to unlock the phone, which isn’t true,” Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) told the Verge. “They’re not obligated to unlock the phone.”
Nonetheless, Bikkannavar says the officer — who brought out a document naming potential consequences for refusal — simply would not allow him to leave without giving the PIN and handing over the phone.
So he caved, and the CBP officer vanished for over half an hour with the NASA phone.
Bikkannavar has no idea what information officers might have kept or what was done with the phone during the inspection, but immediately shut it off, and — upon his eventual release — brought the device straight to JPL’s IT department.
Without going into detail about whether or not sensitive information could have been divulged to officers, Bikkannavar explained the cybersecurity team at JPL was none-too pleased about the incident, as ‘NASA employees are obligated to protect work-related information, no matter how minuscule.’
Beyond concerns about having his work information surveilled, Bikkannavar told the Verge he worries for the privacy of friends, family, and coworkers listed in the phone’s contact section. He has since procured a new phone and number for his work with NASA.
Incidentally, CBP agents altogether failed to inspect the scientist’s bags — bringing into question the true motive for detaining a NASA employee and U.S. citizen with the foreign-sounding name and holding his PIN as the ransom for freedom to return home.
“It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something dangerous in, because they didn’t even touch the bags,” Bikkannavar explained. “They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there.
“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.”
Supporters of travel restrictions insist they don’t intentionally target Muslims; however, anecdotal tales following its implementation evince nefarious underpinnings with far worse implications.
Authorities rushing to comply with the strict yet vague executive order proved, in the case of Bikkannavar and others, that fear of misunderstanding the letter of the law — and repercussions for not acting strictly enough — leads to overcompensation in the detention of scores of wholly innocent, legal travelers due to their ethnicity or religion.
It’s profiling at its worst — and that makes the semantic argument the order somehow wasn’t a ban, utterly moot.
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