Born Muslim scientist detained by US Customs and Border Petrol

A Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer says he was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Houston during President Trump's travel ban and pressured into giving agents access to his NASA-issued phone.

"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 unsafe", Bikkannavar told the Verge. "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", he explained in the post, adding that he has also been working with JPL legal counsel and the lab has issued him a new phone and new phone number.

Bikkannavar said he has since handed his phone over to the JPL IT department and informed his superiors about what happened.

After showing an "Inspection of Electronic Devices" form, the CBP agent asked to look at the US citizen's phone.

The episode, aside from the profiling it ostensibly involved, also put him in a fix with his employers, because he was required to protect access to the phone. "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", said Bikkannavar. "I asked a question, 'Why was I chosen?' And he wouldn't tell me".

The officer then gave Bikkannavar a document titled 'Inspection of Electronic Devices, ' and explained that CBP had the authority to search his phone.

Ultimately, however, Bikkannavar did unlock his phone, which was returned to him after the customs official spent 30 minutes with the phone out of Bikkannavar's view.

"It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something unsafe in, because they didn't even touch the bags", he said.

The detainment left Bikkannavar wondering why he was singled out, since he is a USA citizen, a government employee, and is registered in the Global Entry program.

While the CBP does have authority to search devices, you aren't obligated to unlock your device. "They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there", he says.

Bikkannavar said he doesn't know what happened during those 30 minutes, though he told The Verge that "the cybersecurity team at JPL was not happy about the breach".

The travel ban imposed by President Donald Trump, which a federal court recently refused to reinstate, saw numerous visitors to the United States being demanded to hand over their phones and social media account details.

The frequent traveler leaves us with something to consider: "It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something risky in, because they didn't even touch the bags".

Bikkannavar mused that it might be his foreign-sounding name that set off alarm bells, or maybe it was just a very poorly timed coincidence that it occurred three days after the Trump travel ban was enacted.

  • Zachary Reyes