WASHINGTON: A US-born Nasa scientist of Indian-origin was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) authorities on his return to America from a trip to Chile and pressured into unlocking his phone, amid an anxious debate on how far the Trump administration intends to take the “extreme vetting” that it has promised and whether it would be applied to more recent US-citizens of foreign origin.
Sidd Bikkannavar, who works at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), was held by immigration officials when he returned to Houston four days after President Trump signed his controversial executive order on travels into US.
Agents confiscated his phone and demanded the pin access number without citing reasons, but since the phone was issued by Nasa and contained sensitive material, Bikkannavar initially declined to comply. He was detained till he parted with the information. With his light skin and long brown locks, Bikkannavar does not look very “foreign” (or “Muslim” as some reports erroneously described him; his last name is from the Hubli-Dharwad region in North Karnataka).
Besides, he is 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 had gone to Chile on a personal trip, pursuing his hobby of racing solar-powered cars.
“Just to be clear — I’m a US-born citizen and Nasa engineer, travelling with a valid US passport,” the young researcher wrote in a Facebook post, explaining that, “Once they took both my phone and the access PIN, they returned me to the holding area with the cots and other sleeping detainees until they finished copying my data.”
The episode, aside from the profiling it ostensibly involved, also put him in a fix with his employers, because he was required to protect access to the phone.
“I’m back home, and JPL has been running forensics on the phone to determine what CBP/homeland security might have taken, or whether they installed anything on the device,” he explained in the post, adding that he has also been working with JPL legal counsel and the lab has issued him a new phone and new phone number.
He also said he removed his Facebook page until he was sure the account wasn’t also compromised by the intrusion into his phone and connected apps.
The episode is in line with proposals by the Trump administration that visitors and visa applicants to the US will be required to provide access to their social media accounts, including their passwords. “If they don’t want to give us that information then they don’t come,” homeland security secretary John Kelly told a Congressional hearing last week.
There is growing concern in liberal civil liberties circles over whether such vetting will also be imposed on US citizens and permanent residents of “foreign origin”, with some commentators arguing that Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” is a thinly-disguised attempt to “Make America White Again.”
The President’s supporters maintain such conclusions, based on a few incidents, are exaggerated, even as they insist national security should trump all other concerns.