Skip to Content

Top Story: Border guards force U.S. citizen to unlock phone

Have you been keeping up with the recent changes to national security? President Trump signed an executive order a couple weeks ago that would restrict people entering the U.S. from certain countries.

Since the signing of the EO, there seems to be some confusion on whether U.S. citizens’ rights have changed. This might have played a role in the detaining of a NASA employee at an airport in Texas.

Sidd Bikkannavar, who works for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) at the Houston Intercontinental Airport. The incident happened on January 30, just three days after the EO was signed. He had been in South America for a few weeks, on a personal vacation.

Bikkannavar told “the Verge” that he was surprised at being stopped since he is a U.S. citizen and is enrolled in the Global Entry program. This program is a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival into the United States. Members enter the United States through automatic kiosks at select airports.

Not only was Bikkannavar detained, CBP agents also asked him to hand over his phone along with its passcode. He told the agents that the phone was issued by NASA and he was not allowed to share potentially sensitive information.

What happened next is where U.S. citizens’ rights come into question. A CBP officer presented Bikkannavar with an “Inspection of Electronic Devices” document and said the agency had the authority to search the phone. He was also told that he would not be allowed to leave until he turned over the PIN.

Not wanting to be held for an extended period of time, Bikkannavar gave up the phone and the PIN. An agent took the phone into another room for about 30 minutes before returning and giving it back to Bikkannavar. At this point, he was released.

When he got to his destination of Los Angeles, he immediately turned the phone over to the JPL IT department so they could scan it to see what information, if any, had been taken. He was then given a new phone with a new phone number.

How you need to prepare for international travel

The Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection started asking certain entrants into the U.S. for access to their gadgets last year. However, previously giving an agent your PIN has been optional.

This program was intended to be an opt-in request and not mandatory. Although, many travelers might not be aware that they have the right to refuse the request.

As far as U.S. law goes, courts have ruled in the past that suspects can be required to unlock their phones without violating the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination. However, they do not have to give them their passcodes because they can be used against them maliciously.

The most important thing before leaving or entering the country is knowing your rights. These rights can vary for each traveler, depending on the type of visa they have.

People are being urged to speak with an attorney before traveling out of the country so you know exactly what your rights are. Also, if you are detained by an agent while entering the U.S., you should tell them that you want to speak to a lawyer.

CBP has yet to comment on the Bikkannavar incident. Keep checking with our Happening Now section for any updates that we get on this story and for all of your tech news.

More stories you can’t miss:

5 of the world’s worst travel scams guaranteed to cost you BIG

6 essential steps to secure your smartphone or tablet

Time to erase yourself from the internet App background

Check out the free App!

Get the latest tech updates and breaking news on the go, straight to your phone, with the App, available in the Apple Store and Google Play Store.

Download Now