Sidd Bikkannavar, NASA scientist detained at US border

Sidd Bikkannavar, a U.S.-born Indian American NASA scientist was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials and was not permitted to enter the country unless he unlocked his PIN-protected work phone. Sidd Bikkannavar, who works in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, was detained Jan. 30 upon returning to the U.S. from Santiago, Chile, the Verge reported.

Bikkannavar said he was pressured to give the CBP agents his phone and access PIN. Since the phone was issued by NASA, it may have contained sensitive material that wasn’t supposed to be shared. Bikkannavar’s phone was returned to him after it was searched by CBP, but he doesn’t know exactly what information officials might have taken from the device.

Seemingly, Bikkannavar’s reentry into the country should not have raised any flags. Not only is he a natural-born US citizen, but he’s also enrolled in Global Entry — a program through CBP that allows individuals who have undergone background checks to have expedited entry into the country. He hasn’t visited the countries listed in the immigration ban and he has worked at JPL — a major center at a US federal agency — for 10 years. There, he works on “wavefront sensing and control,” a type of optics technology that will be used on the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

“CBP officers seized my phone and wouldn’t release me until I gave them my access PIN for them to copy the data. I initially refused since it’s a JPL-issued phone and I must protect access.” He added, “Just to be clear — I’m a U.S.-born citizen and NASA engineer, traveling with a valid U.S. visa.”

Bikkannavar was yet to receive an explanation for why he was stopped at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport. “I don’t know what to think about this,” Bikkannavar recently told The Verge in aphone call. “…I was caught a little off guard by the whole thing.”

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