US-Born NASA Scientist Detained At Airport And Told To Hand Over Smartphone

Outside NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock

Science knows no boundaries, unless it's US passport border control. Cybersecurity experts at NASA are currently investigating a smartphone that was taken off one of their scientists at an airport by US border control.

Sidd Bikkannavar, a US-born scientist who works at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was detained at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas, on January 30, days after President Trump signed an executive order banning citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. Bikkannavar was returning home after a personal trip to Santiago in Chile, where he had been racing solar-powered cars, he explained in an interview with The Verge

Despite being a government employee who is registered in the Global Entry program for “pre-approved, low-risk travelers,” he was taken into a private interview room by US Customs and Border Patrol and handed a document titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices.”

He was pressured into handing over his smartphone, which was issued to him by JPL, along with his access PIN. Since this means the phone is technically the property of NASA, Bikkannavar is expected to protect its contents.

Bikkannavar, whose name originates from southern India, said it could be a “huge coincidence” that this happened days after the travel ban, although he acknowledged he has a "foreign-sounding name."

“I asked a question, ‘Why was I chosen?’ And he wouldn’t tell me," Bikkannavar told The Verge.

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“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 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.”

Eventually, he handed over the PIN and phone. After being escorted to a back room with other detainees and waiting for 40 minutes, it was returned.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory say they’re now "running forensics" on the phone to determine if anything had been taken or installed onto the phone. He has also deleted his Facebook page until he can ensure it “wasn’t also comprised.”

“This is a huge, huge violation of my work policy," Bikkannavar told The Atlantic. "This is a matter of great concern."

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