US rocket man held phone searched by airport security

A NASA rocket scientist was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol and pressured to turn over his phone and access PIN.

The move poses some serious security problems because US Customs and Border Patrol lacked the security clearance to hack Sidd Bikkannavar’s phone and since he worked for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) this is a big deal.

Bikkannavar says his phone was issued by NASA and may have contained sensitive material that wasn’t supposed to be shared. Then there is the small matter that Bikkannavar is a US citizen and should not have been forced to give over his phone under the US constitution.

A CBP officer escorted Bikkannavar to a back room, and told him to wait for additional instructions. About 40 minutes later an officer took him to 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.

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. CBP asked for the phone and the access PIN despite Bikkannavar’s protests.

The officer insisted that he had a right to search the phone and did not allow him to leave until he handed over his PIN. This is also odd as Courts have ruled that travellers are not legally required to unlock their devices, although agents can detain them for significant periods of time if they do not.

When the phone  was returned Bikkannavar immediately turned it off because he knew he had to take it straight to the IT department at JPL. Once he arrived in Los Angeles, he went to NASA and told his superiors what had happened. The cybersecurity team at JPL was not happy about the breach. After all if Russia or China wanted US rocket plans all it would have to do was compromise the US Customs and Border Patrol which is not that difficult.