On a January morning the week after President Trump's inauguration, NASA engineer Sidd Bikkannavar flew back to the United States on an international flight from Chile.
Bikkannavar, 35, designs space telescopes at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He is a native of Los Angeles who earned a master's degree at USC and has worked as an engineer with NASA for nearly 14 years. Bikkannavar says his father lives in India and his mother's family has been in America since it was a British colony.
An experienced traveler, Bikkannavar is enrolled in Global Entry, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States. But to his dismay, when he got to a Customs kiosk at the airport during a layover in Houston, the machine printed out a form with a large X over his picture and instructions that he report to passport control.
A Customs agent escorted him to a waiting area. Bikkannavar says that once he was seated in a room, another agent asked him a series of questions, including where he worked and what he was doing abroad.
Bikkannavar told the agent that he had traveled to Chile on a personal trip; he went to drive a solar-powered race car as part of an exhibition of new technology. Bikkannavar says he drove one of the cars north through Patagonia to the capital city of Santiago. "It was a routine trip to a pretty benign part of world," he says.
The agent then ordered Bikkannavar to tell him the password that would unlock the smartphone he was carrying. The phone had been issued to him for personal use by Jet Propulsion Lab; Bikkannavar refused to comply with the order. What happened next is the subject of a lawsuit filed against multiple government agencies last week by the ACLU and the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"As politely as I could I declined to give the password," Bikkannavar says, "and they insisted they had the right to search everything I had."
Bikkannavar says an agent handed him a form that described the right of Border Patrol agents to access and copy the contents of an electronic device — and that a refusal to comply could lead to the seizure of the device and the detention of the traveler.
"I'm the kind of person who is inclined to cooperate with authorities," he says. "I'm concerned about saying no too many times. So finally I just slowly told him the pass code."
In an email to L.A. Weekly, CBP spokesman Corry Schiermeyer declined to comment on the lawsuit but said all travelers arriving in the United States are subject to an inspection that may include computers, cameras, mobile phones and other communication devices. "No court has concluded that such searches require a warrant, and our use of this authority has been repeatedly upheld," Schiermeyer wrote.
Esha Bhandari, staff attorney for the ACLU, says the agents in Bikkannavar's case exceeded their authority. She says border agencies have the authority to conduct warrantless searches of a traveler's luggage, but that doesn't extend to electronic devices.
The ACLU's lawsuit comes after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2014 that police may not search the cellphones of criminal suspects upon arrest without a warrant. The court said that smartphones and other electronic devices are not in the same category as wallets, briefcases and vehicles — an exemption, Bhandari says, that applies equally to inspections by border authorities.
Bikkannavar is one of 11 plaintiffs — including journalists, a military veteran and an independent filmmaker — who say they were detained at the U.S. border, coerced by agents and subjected to illegal searches.
"All of our plaintiffs were searched without suspicion," Bhandari says, "and what happened to them is an example of what happens when the government asserts this authority to search without reasonable suspicion or adequate cause."
The lawsuit seeks a federal court order forcing the government to cease warrantless searches of electronic devices, as well as a formal acknowledgement by Homeland Security that its policies and practices violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights.
Bikkannavar says the agent wrote down his password on a piece of paper and left the room with the phone for about 30 minutes. When he returned he handed back the phone and escorted Bikkannavar back to the arrivals area, where he narrowly made his connecting flight to L.A. But the discomfort about the smartphone search stayed with him. (Bikkannavar declined to say if any sensitive information from NASA was stored on the phone. He later added: "We have no reason to believe any sensitive data was compromised.")
"Yes, I'm upset about the violation of privacy," he says. "Especially since I've been working my whole career with the government. As time passed, I got more upset thinking about all the consequences of what happened. It leaves me to wonder who they'll share it with, how long they'll keep the data and what they'll do with it."
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Less than one-100th of 1 percent of all arriving international travelers are subject to searches of electronic devices, according to data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in March. But the number of electronic searches by the agency has increased nearly fivefold in the first half of 2017 compared with the same period in 2015.
The agency reports that it searched the electronic devices of 14,993 arriving international travelers between January and June of this year.
"People might say, 'If you have nothing to hide, why are you worried?'" Bikkannavar says. "It's not about having nothing to hide — it's about having to think about this stuff each time I travel. Being apprehensive about travel is not a great way to live your life. If I find myself in this situation for having done nothing wrong."
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated Sidd Bikkannavar's age and where his father lives. It was also updated with a quote about the data on his phone.