The Indian-origin scientist had returned to Houston from Chile, where he had gone to pursue his hobby of racing solar-powered cars.
A US-born Muslim scientist was detained at the George Bush International Airport in Houston, Texas on Monday, January 30 and forced to give his NASA-issued phone and access PIN, The Verge reported.
After the officer presented Bikkannavar with a document titled "Inspection of Electronic Devices" and asked him to turn in his phone, Bikkannavar initially refused.
In addition to being an American-born citizen, Bikkannavar is also enrolled in the Global Entry program, where citizens agree to a background check to expedite security checks when traveling. CBP officers seized my phone and wouldn't release me until I gave my access PIN for them to copy the data.
Bikkannavar said he returned to the USA shortly after President Donald Trump signed an executive order which blocked immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. "I didn't really want to explore all those consequences", Bikkannavar said. "I asked a question, 'Why was I chosen?' And he wouldn't tell me", he says.
"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".
After showing an "Inspection of Electronic Devices" form, the CBP agent asked to look at the USA citizen's phone. Wilfredo A. Ruiz, a spokesperson for CAIR-Florida and Muslim convert, says citizens are required to surrender their mobile phones and laptops whenever a border agent asks for them, but not their passwords or personal social media information. He hasn't visited the countries listed in the immigration ban and he has worked at JPL - a major centre at a United States federal agency - for 10 years.
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Now, he is back to his home and has also resumed his duty at the JPL.
While the CBP does have authority to search devices, you aren't obligated to unlock your device.
He was pressured into handing over his smartphone, which was issued to him by JPL, along with his access PIN.
Once released, Bikannavar returned to his workplace in Los Angeles, informed his superiors and handed over the phone to cyber-security team at the JPL - who did not seem very happy about the incident.
After being stopped his phone was taken away and the authorities demanded to know his phone password without citing a valid reason.
Bikkannavar described his experience on Facebook, revealing his absence to friends and coworkers. They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there.
The frequent traveler leaves us with something to consider: "It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something risky in, because they didn't even touch the bags". He says he understands that his name is foreign - its roots go back to southern India. "Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban", he told The Verge.