When NASA scientist Sidd Bikkannavar flew home after his most recent trip abroad, he immediately knew something was up. A natural born US citizen with pre-approved clearance through the Global Entry program, Bikkannavar, 35, typically flies through customs in minutes. But this time, he was asked to go to an interview room. And hand over his phone.
"The officer told me they needed to search my possessions to make sure I wasn't bringing anything dangerous into the country," Bikkannavar told me over the phone. "That was fine, I'm a very patient and cooperative person, so I wasn't upset. After asking a few questions, they asked for my phone, and then casually asked for the pin. That's when I had to slow down."
Since Bikkannavar uses a NASA-issued work phone, he was hesitant to hand over the password. NASA's communications with Bikkannavar could contain confidential information about research and work. But the border guards didn't really give Bikkannavar much of a choice, so he reluctantly handed over his pin to unlock the phone. The border guards then left the room with the phone for 30 minutes before returning it and letting Bikkannavar go.
The detainment and phone search occurred on January 30, the Monday after President Donald Trump's immigration and travel executive order went into effect. When Bikkannavar wrote a Facebook post about his experience this week, it quickly went viral, and sent many people speculating about why he was detained, and whether it had to do with the travel ban.
When he flew back home that Monday, Bikkannavar was returning from two weeks in South America where he was driving in a long-distance solar car rally. It started in the southern tip of South America, next to the Drake Passage, and wound up to Santiago, Chile over 10 days. Bikkannavar has been involved in solar car racing since he was a teenager, but only recently switched back to working on a team after years working as a race official.
These races take him all over the world, and all the traveling is part of what prompted Bikkannavar to join the Global Entry program, which requires a background check and in-person interview. He also learned to pack light, only bringing a carry-on, and not fuss with bringing back souvenirs of any kind. Though a handful of times he had been randomly picked for an extra question or two, Bikkannavar told me he's usually the first person out of the airport when traveling in a group.
Bikkannavar said he always travels with his NASA phone because his work at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory doesn't stop when he's out of the lab. He works on a team that investigates new ways of measuring light to create adaptive, moveable mirrors for space telescopes.
"We can't actually build any optics bigger than Hubble and still have it fit inside a rocket," Bikkannavar explained. "The only way to go bigger is to have a segmented mirror that unfolds and opens in orbit, sort of like flower petals."
But having a work-issue phone with communications about NASA projects means he needs to be cautious about privacy. When he flew home that weekend, the immigration ban was on his mind—it was all over the news—and when he was called for additional screening, the thought crossed his mind that perhaps it was related.
"My feelings weren't outrage that my privacy had been compromised, really what was going through my mind was all the things I would now have to do," Bikkannavar said. "I have to go straight into work. I have to report this. I have to report it in a few different ways. I wasn't looking forward to that."
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory started an investigation into what information, if any, had been collected from the phone. They issued Bikkannavar a new phone and number. A spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection told me they can't comment on any specific case, but shared a form that explains why some travellers might be asked to hand over their phone. Those reasons include not having complete travel documents, sharing a name with someone on a government watch list, or just because you've been selected randomly:
Bikkannavar told me guards never explained why he was being singled out, but said he also didn't really press the issue. hough he thinks it's important to add his experience to the public record, he said he doesn't know if his detainment and search had anything to do with the immigration ban, or his racial profile.
"I do have a foreign name. I do have dark skin. But I'm not Muslim," Bikkannavar said.
He also emphasized that NASA's concerns were focused on his phone and whether any information may have been compromised, but beyond that, people shouldn't be expecting some big showdown between federal agencies.
"They've been carefully analyzing the device and we don't have any reason to believe any sensitive data was compromised," he said. "That's where JPL's involvement ends."