Tag Archives: U.S. Customs

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

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.