Security is one thing, stupid security and stepping on the 4th Amendment is quite another, something an unfortunate JPL/NASA engineer had to endure when coming back to the states after participating in a solar race in Chile. Note that Sidd Bikkannavar was born in the US and is obviously a vetted citizen to the max who happens to work on the James Webb Telescope, a rather important project for America without question.
Everything started to go wrong just after 5 a.m., when Sidd Bikkannavar scanned his passport, placed his hand on a fingerprint reader, and watched as the automated customs kiosk spat out a receipt with a black X drawn across it.
It was January 31. Bikkannavar had just arrived at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport after a nine-hour flight from Santiago, Chile, where he’d competed in a two-week race from the southern tip of the country to its capital in a solar-powered car. In a few hours, he would board a connecting flight back home to California, where he’s worked at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena for over a decade. Bikkannavar, a 35-year-old engineer who was born in Pasadena, designs technology for space telescopes like the enormous James Webb telescope that’s set to be launched into orbit in 2018.
But before boarding his next plane, Bikkannavar would have to clear customs and immigration. Usually, it’s a breeze: He’s a part of the Customs and Border Protection Global Entry program, whose members are waved through the line after just scanning their passport and fingerprints. But the receipt with the X meant things wouldn’t go so smoothly this time.
He presented it to an agent and was promptly led to a holding room. The customs checkpoint had only been open for business for 10 or 20 minutes, so the room was mostly empty. But several occupied cots were arranged in the room, suggesting that some people had spent the night. A table was arranged with peanut butter biscuits, crackers, and instant noodle cups.
After about 40 minutes, Bikkannavar was called up. He was led to a small door labeled “Interview Room,” and seated across from a border agent, who said he needed to search Bikkannavar’s things.
Bikkannavar asked why he was singled out for questioning, but the agent wouldn’t tell him. There can't have been any suspicion about his identity, Bikkannavar thought: Not only was he a member of Global Entry—a program that requires applicants to submit to an extensive background check and fingerprinting—but his work at NASA requires him to be vetted regularly by the federal government. He was, he thought, a particularly known entity.
“I’m always super cooperative about this stuff. This isn’t a story about me being super offended and being inconvenienced,” Bikkannavar told me. “I get it. I was with them up to this point.”
But the agent never touched Bikkannavar’s bag—instead, he asked for his smartphone. Bikkannavar handed it over, assuming the agent might just want to inspect it to make sure it wasn’t something more dangerous in disguise. The agent turned it over in his hand and asked for the passcode.
“This is a huge, huge violation of my work policy. This is a matter of great concern.” Bikkannavar was taken aback. The phone was Jet Propulsion Lab property, he explained, pointing out the barcode stuck to the back. It was his duty to protect its sensitive contents, and he couldn’t give out the passcode.
The border agent wouldn’t relent. He needed to access the device, he said, and had the authority to do so. He’d handed Bikkannavar a document titled “Inspection of Electronic Devices” when they first sat down, and Bikkannavar gave it a quick scan. The document claimed that CBP had the right to search “all persons, baggage, and merchandise arriving in, or departing from, the United States.” On the backside, in fine print at the bottom, there was a section with the heading, “Consequences of Failure to Provide Information.” The section said that giving up the information is “mandatory” and not cooperating could lead to the “detention and/or seizure” of the electronic device in question.
RIP to a once great nation.
Where Bikkannavar works