We live in a world where our lives are on our phones. Your phone could tell someone anything they want to know about you, with or without your permission. This story of a U.S. citizen returning home from an international flight might make you want to think twice before you take your cell phone on an international trip.
Sidd Bikkannavar, a US-born cititizen, was detained on his trip back to Houston, Texas from Chile. Bikkannavar had been in Patagonia racing solar-powered cars. After scanning Bikkannavar's passport, U.S. Customs and Boarder Control (CPB) decided that Bikkannavar needed to be detained. Bikkannavar was then taken to a room where other detainees were sleeping on cots.
Bikkannavar is a member of a CPB program called Global Entry, which “allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers" when they enter the States. While detained, Bikkannavar was asked questions that covered basic information which had already been provided through Global Entry. Bikkannavar was then asked to unlock and then turn over his work phone.
But Bikkannavar is also a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and his work phone had been issued by a federal agency and contained sensitive data on it. NASA instructs its employees to protect their work information. Bikkannavar attempted to explain this to the CBP, but nevertheless he was handed an Inspection of Electronic Devices form.
Bikkannavar was given no explanation for why he was detained, or even why they needed to unlock his phone. Manual phone searches are legal, however you do not have to unlock your phone. But the Inspections of Electronic Devices form does list detention and seizure as possible consequences for failing to cooperate with the CBP.
Bikkannavar eventually unlocked his phone. Then, his phone was taken out of his possession for 30 minutes while unlocked. He had no idea what happened to his phone during this time. Following the return of his phone, Bikkannavar immediately turned it off, then gave it to the cybersecurity team at JPL.
Bikkannavar, who's last name is of Indian origin, alluded that his detainment might be due to the travel ban. "Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban," said Bikkannavar.
Bikkannavar traveled to Chile right before the travel ban was implemented. However, when Bikkannavar returned to the U.S. just four days later, the travel ban was in full swing. Bikkannavar says he has been profiled before, but his experiences at the Houston airport went above and beyond.
But Hassan Shibly, the chief executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Florida, says travelers have more right than they think they do. "In each incident that I've seen, the subjects have been shown a Blue Paper that says CBP has legal authority to search phones at the border, which gives them the impression that they're obligated to unlock the phone, which isn't true," says Shibly.
What happened to Bikkannavar raises larger questions due to the extent of how much Americans keep their lives on their phones. Between just phone calls, emails, Facebook and other social media, a person's phone can tell more about them than they might want known. Even if you're not engaging in illegal activity or, in the case of Bikkannavar, have sensitive information on the phone, giving someone access to the contents of your phone could be a hard pill to swallow.
In a Facebook post shared on Twitter by a friend, Bikkannavar spoke of his experience during his travels. "Sorry for the absence. On my way home to the US last weekend I was detained by Homeland Security and held with others who were stranded under the Muslim ban," wrote Bikkannavar. "CBP officers seized my phone and wouldn't release me until I gave my access PIN for them to copy the data."
"Just to be clear," continued Bikkannavar, "I'm a US-born citizen and NASA engineer, traveling with a valid US passport." Bikkannavar explained he removed his Facebook page until he was sure it hadn't been compromised.
An article recently appearing on Medium argued for leaving one's cell phone or laptop at home when travelling abroad. "You can't hand over a device that you don't have," explained author Quincy Larson. Larson warns that an unlocked phone could become a "skeleton key" into one's life.
As most international airports have locations where travelers can rent phones, Larson advocates leaving them (and laptops) at home when traveling internationally. Additionally, Larson suggests buying a second phone or laptop and leaving it with family if you have family overseas. And as for work phones, Larson suggests that employers create a policy in which employees are not allowed to bring devices on international business trips.