American citizen detained and forced by Customs to unlock his JPL secure phone


Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Unacceptable: An American citizen, with a legal passport and already part of the TSA security program designed to expedite his passage through customs, was detained at the border and forced to unlock his secure JPL phone so that Customs could access its contents.

Bikkannavar says he arrived into Houston early Tuesday morning, and was detained by CBP after his passport was scanned. A CBP officer escorted Bikkannavar to a back room, and told him to wait for additional instructions. About five other travelers who had seemingly been affected by the ban were already in the room, asleep on cots that were provided for them.

About 40 minutes went by before an officer appeared and called Bikkannavar’s name. “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,” he says. The CBP officer started asking questions about where Bikkannavar was coming from, where he lives, and his title at work. It’s all information the officer should have had since Bikkannavar is enrolled in Global Entry. “I asked a question, ‘Why was I chosen?’ And he wouldn’t tell me,” he says.

The officer also presented Bikkannavar with a document titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices” and explained that CBP had authority to search his phone. Bikkannavar did not want to hand over the device, because it was given to him by JPL and is technically NASA property. He even showed the officer the JPL barcode on the back of phone. Nonetheless, CBP asked for the phone and the access PIN. “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,” says 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.”

Even more puzzling: The Customs agents had no interest in Bikkannavar’s carry-ons. It was almost as if they simply wished to humiliate and harass an American citizen, while also accessing his private data (which in this case actually didn’t belong to him).

Trump’s effort to regain control of the borders is perfectly legitimate, especially from countries that are hotbeds of Islamic terrorism. That policy however must not include the abuse of power by border agents. This event, if true, is unacceptable. I can think of no justifiable reason for Customs agents to need to access the private phone of this citizen, especially because he clearly was a legal American and had already obtained government security clearance in several different ways. The agents who did this should be fired.

19 comments

  • ken anthony

    The tin gods at the bottom are always going to be a problem. Yes, they should be held accountable.

  • Commodude

    The only thing that surprises me about this is that it hasn’t been in the news more often., and it’s not just CBP. TSA has made equally disturbing demands, including asking military personnel to open and power up COMSEC (communications security) devices.

  • BSJ

    Customs has been able to do this to anyone for a long time. Citizens included…

    The Fourth Amendment is Null & Void at a “Border crossing.”

  • wayne

    BSJ–
    A most excellent point.
    –The time to object, was 40 years ago…
    Reference:
    United_States_v._Martinez-Fuerte
    (7-2 Ruling. Decided July 6, 1976.)

  • wayne

    William S. Burroughs prediction from
    “Drugstore Cowboy” (1979)
    https://youtu.be/kZszbqdOq7g
    (1:25)

  • Chris R

    In other news, TSA employees involved in 16-year-long cocaine smuggling ring in Puerto Rico.

    http://thehill.com/policy/transportation/319246-tsa-employees-arrested-for-cocaine-smuggling-operation-in-puerto-rico

  • wodun

    Maybe there is more to the story. Why did he take his JPL phone out of the country?

  • Mitch S

    Bottom line is Customs/TSA etc has had plenty of instances of abuse of power for as long as the agencies existed.
    But now of course any infraction is due to Trump.
    Just as swastikas have been painted on Jewish homes and institutions since the Nazis, but now every episode is greeted with “look at life in the age of Trump”.
    As with any racist/sexist/anti-whatever-beloved-by-liberals event, shout, tweet or burp.
    It’s all Trump’s fault.
    Uh huh.

  • Steve Earle

    wodun
    February 13, 2017 at 2:12 pm
    “…Maybe there is more to the story. Why did he take his JPL phone out of the country?…”

    Exactly. I learned long ago that there is almost always 2 sides to every story. And in the current climate I never trust the media to report honestly on anything, but especially on any story where there is a chance they can embarrass Trump in particular and/or the USA in general.

    Remember the poor, victimized “Clock Boy”? In that case they gleefully painted normally cautious school officials as racist, paranoid abusers of their authority.

    I have no love for the TSA, they should have never existed in the first place, but I also don’t like being told that we are becoming a Police State everytime someone cries “Victim”, and like Pavlov’s Dogs the Press starts salivating….

  • Edward

    So, what kind of information or data is inspectable at or banned from entry?

    wodun asked: “Why did he take his JPL phone out of the country?
    Perhaps to make business related calls.

    These days, how few people do not do some form of work or business on personal time or personal vacations?

    Mitch S wrote: “It’s all Trump’s fault.

    Well, look what it took for everything to stop being all Bush’s fault. All it took was for another Republican to be elected president. Funny how Bush’s failings lasted all eight years of Obama’s administration, but Obama’s failings didn’t survive the first minute of Trump’s.

    Oh, that’s right. Nothing was ever Obama’s fault. He was the perfect president, and we should change the Constitution so that we can have him back.

  • Chris

    My understanding from someone at the Trusted Computing Group is that if you do to things: never tell anyone your password and never write it down then to compel you you to divulge it is a direct violation of First Amendment rights.
    You lawyers out there can tell us if this is correct.
    The second question is if a border is considered US soil. If so, and this may be the catch, then this is a clear violation of Constitutional rights.

  • Steve Earle

    Edward
    February 13, 2017 at 7:44 pm
    So, what kind of information or data is inspectable at or banned from entry?

    wodun asked: “Why did he take his JPL phone out of the country?”
    Perhaps to make business related calls.
    ***********************************************************

    My limited understanding is that anything and anyone that wants to enter the country is subject to inspection. The one exception I am aware of is anything sealed in a locked Diplomatic Pouch.

    If this guy took a phone outside the country with JPL’s permission, then shame on them if they did that knowing it contained sensitive information. What if it was lost or stolen?

    And if it wasn’t with their permission and it did in fact have secret info on it, then we should thank the Border Agent for bringing that to light so he can be prosecuted.

    If this phone (and the contained information) was that important, he should have just refused to co-operate and insisted that they arrest him and bring him in front of a Judge.

    On our Nations highways, we have a program that Interstate Trucks can enroll in that allows them to be waived thru Truck Inspections and Weigh Stations by displaying a sticker that shows they are “Pre-Inspected”… That sticker does not mean that they aren’t still subject to be stopped and fully inspected AT ANY TIME by either our Troopers or the DOT Officers that are sometimes present. Especially so if there is something about the truck or the driver that seems out of place.

    I suspect that if the Border Agent was allowed to speak freely there was something about this guy and/or the phone that caught the attention of someone at the Border.

    I also suspect that either the guy and/or the press is making the phone part of this to be more than it is just to increase the level of “outrage” in the story….

  • wayne

    Steve Earle–
    Good stuff. Was hoping you would weigh in on this topic.
    (it does sound like manufactured-outrage, we are missing substantial factoids.)

    a key point you bring up;
    “If this phone (and the contained information) was that important, he should have just refused to co-operate and insisted that they arrest him and bring him in front of a Judge.”

    –When in doubt, keep your mouth SHUT. If they had anything actionable on him, they would arrest him. They already have his passport, he gains nothing by “cooperating” above and beyond name and purpose of travel. You should of course, cooperate up to a point, and then keep your mouth closed.
    (Only a Federal Attorney can “cut you a deal if you cooperate,” so just assume you are being manipulated to incriminate yourself. Your day is already ruined, don’t “fold under questioning.”)

    BSJ hit on it right off the bat– at Border Crossings (and Checkpoints in the interior), the 4th Amendment isn’t in play.

    [There’s a good reason I don’t leave the borders of the USA– you have zero Constitutional rights outside the Homeland and getting back can become problematic. (And, I’m jingoistic. HA.)]

    The “phone-thing,” is a definite red herring. Again, we are missing vital factoids.

    “A U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officer’s border search authority is derived from federal statutes and regulations, including 19 C.F.R. 162.6, which states that, “All persons, baggage and merchandise arriving in the Customs territory of the United States from places outside thereof are liable to inspection by a CBP officer.” Unless exempt by diplomatic status, all persons entering the United States, including U.S. citizens, are subject to examination and search by CBP officers.”

    https://www.dhs.gov/how-do-i/cross-us-borders

  • To all: It is always a pleasure to get the perspective of my readers. Very educational.

    I posted this story because it is my belief that we should generally air on the side of the citizen, and lean towards outrage when a government official steps on that citizen’s rights. At the same time, I also had a sneaking suspicion that this story had appeared now because of the press’s full court press to attack Trump and his immigration orders, and that the circumstances included important details there that were not mentioned or that were being purposely left out. The comments here have provided some of that missing context.

    I still do not like the power exercised by the customs agents here, but that is mostly because I never like it when government agents treat citizens like their servants. It offends my sense of freedom and human rights, even in those cases where it probably makes sense.

  • BSJ

    [There’s a good reason I don’t leave the borders of the USA– you have zero Constitutional rights outside the Homeland and getting back can become problematic. (And, I’m jingoistic. HA.)]

    The border is now 100 miles ‘thick”. Woe to those of us who live too close…

  • wayne

    Mr. Z.
    good stuff.

    BSJ:
    Excellent point… the Border is “100 miles thick” according to some of these Federal laws.

    This won’t work at an actual border-crossing, but it does work in the interior.

    “No Thanks”
    Best DHS Checkpoint Refusals
    https://youtu.be/6_3dDNPwJTU
    (14:00)

  • wayne

    Tangentially–
    In Michigan, we have a database for all Controlled-substance prescriptions. (Schedule 2, 3 ,4, and 5. Used to be called “PADS” ‘prescription-abuse-detection-system.’)
    – When I was at Mental Health, first thing we did was look your name & drivers license number up and see every controlled-substance you had ever been prescribed, the amount you received, the Doctor(s) who prescribed it, and whether you paid cash or had RX insurance.

    I do not like this “border stuff,” in general and I like these “medical databases” even less.
    There are valid and limited reasons, for knowing this specific information at a specific point in time, but its totally ripe for mass abuse of your Rights.-The Database will not proactively hit on you, but if you are prone to “doctor-hopping” for controlled-substances, they can come back at you at any point in the future, if they want to make an example out of you.
    (It falls into the nebulous “conspiracy with intent to posses Controlled substance by fraud,” category. Although generally they use that charge as leverage to plea-bargain you down for the crime they actually caught you committing.)

  • Edward

    Steve Earle wrtoe: “My limited understanding is that anything and anyone that wants to enter the country is subject to inspection.

    So they are just looking at it for fun and profit. They do not expect to find anything that would be banned from entry, but would have your password for no important reason.

    I’m not thinking that there is any secret information, as I do not know of any national security secrets that JPL works on. It merely looks like First Amendment and Fourth Amendment issues, not Fifth Amendment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *