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.
Sidd Bikkannavar detailed his detainment in a public Facebook post two weeks ago that has since been removed, according to a cache of the page.
“Just to be clear — I’m a US-born citizen and NASA engineer, traveling with a valid US passport,” Bikkannavar wrote on Facebook. “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.”
Bikkannavar originally refused to provide the access code because the phone is the property of NASA.
“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 wrote. “I’ve also been working with JPL legal counsel.”
In an interview with The Verge, Bikkannavar said an officer told him CBP had authority to search his phone and would not allow the engineer to leave until he unlocked the device. The phone was taken for 30 minutes before being returned to Bikkannavar, who turned it off and took it JPL’s IT department immediately upon returning to Los Angeles.
NASA provided a new device and a new phone number, according to the Facebook post.
Bikkannavar told The Verge he wasn’t sure why he was singled out for the electronic search and that officers did not go through his bags.
The U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s explainer on the “Inspection of Electronic Devices” says people may be selected at random, or for having incomplete travel documents; past violations of customs’ law; or a name in a government database.
Officials at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory could not be reached for comment due to the holiday. Bikkannavar was a member of the Palomar Observatory’s Adaptive Optics team and helped create software used on the James Webb Space Telescope, according to the website.
The detainment happened four days into the President’s executive order freezing the country’s refugee program and banning travel for citizens of seven Muslim countries. Last week, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling that suspended the 90-day ban until the merits could be argued in court.