Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
NASA Cellphones Government Privacy

US-Born NASA Scientist Detained At The Border Until He Unlocked His Phone (theverge.com) 627

Sidd Bikkannavar works at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. After racing solar-powered cars in Chile, he had trouble returning to America. mspohr quote The Verge: Bikkannavar says he was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and pressured to give the Customs and Border Protection agents his phone and access PIN. Since the phone was issued by NASA, it may have contained sensitive material that wasn't supposed to be shared. Bikkannavar's phone was returned to him after it was searched by CBP, but he doesn't know exactly what information officials might have taken from the device...

The officer also presented Bikkannavar with a document titled "Inspection of Electronic Devices" and explained that CBP had authority to search his phone. Bikkannavar did not want to hand over the device, because it was given to him by JPL and is technically NASA property. He even showed the officer the JPL barcode on the back of phone. Nonetheless, CBP asked for the phone and the access PIN. "I was cautiously telling him I wasn't allowed to give it out, because I didn't want to seem like I was not cooperating," says Bikkannavar. "I told him I'm not really allowed to give the passcode; I have to protect access. But he insisted they had the authority to search it."

While border agents have the right to search devices, The Verge reports that travelers aren't legally required to unlock their phones, "although agents can detain them for significant periods of time if they do not." They also report that Bikkannavar "was not allowed to leave until he gave CBP his PIN," adding that the cybersecurity team at JPL "was not happy about the breach."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

US-Born NASA Scientist Detained At The Border Until He Unlocked His Phone

Comments Filter:
  • by ghoul ( 157158 ) on Sunday February 12, 2017 @10:54PM (#53853627)

    And by him I mean the CBP officer guilty of breach of national security.

    • Should get a medal, revealed this scientist to be weak.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday February 12, 2017 @11:31PM (#53853785)

      And by him I mean the CBP officer guilty of breach of national security.

      That's what I thought.
      I see the possibility of a CPB officer taking bribes (or blackmail) from a foreign entity, (government or business) to copy the phones of people who may have access to interesting things. So many are already on the payroll of drug runners.

    • That was my thought too, but I was thinking lock away the supposed scientist that just let some oaf bully him into giving up access to a JPL phone that might have had important security related information on it. The oaf will never learn and will continue to enjoy playing the bully, but people need to learn not to give in to them.
    • by pegr ( 46683 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @01:08AM (#53854199) Homepage Journal

      The officer may be guilty of misrepresentation, but I blame NASA for not telling folks how to handle a NASA phone. CITIZENS have no requirement to answer any questions or facilitate a search. Leave the phone and keep walking.

      • The officer may be guilty of misrepresentation, but I blame NASA for not telling folks how to handle a NASA phone. CITIZENS have no requirement to answer any questions or facilitate a search. Leave the phone and keep walking.

        Good idea. The suspicious* dark skinned guy being questioned by armed** CPB agents at an airport should just put the phone down in front of them, pick up his hand luggage and walk away through the airport ignoring their requests to stop. What's the worst thing that could happen right?

        *why else would they want to get into his phone.
        **I assume CPB agents are armed. If not I am sure there was someone of authority close by with a deadly weapon.

  • by quenda ( 644621 ) on Sunday February 12, 2017 @11:10PM (#53853693)

    Wow, am wondering if I should be doing a factory reset before the plane finishes taxiing.
    Or will they then demand my Google/Apple password?

    Nah, I'm white. I'll wait 'till they come for us.

    • The new administration is going to go for mass/personal surveillance even more than the prior administration (which was terrible) - count on these guys making a copy of every bit of personal data and messaging on that phone.

      I'd get a burner phone with very limited personal data on it and use that for international traveling unless you don't mind the govt getting a copy of everything on your daily driver phone and saving it forever to be possibly used against you when the time comes (and the tyrant is rig
    • by Miamicanes ( 730264 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @01:40AM (#53854325)

      I'd be more worried that they'd install NSA-grade bootloader-compromising malware capable of surviving anything short of JTAG-reflashing everything from the motherboard BIOS to the hard drive, videocard, and network card firmware, and turn my kick-ass laptop into one that mysteriously crashes for no apparent reason thereafter, even after I've reinstalled Windows multiple times (without even getting into the fact that it would be permanently compromised from a privacy and security standpoint). Think: Sony rootkit on steroids, with the nearly-unlimited of the US government and support from the legal system behind it (for the few who don't know, Sony's rootkit was distributed as a file that auto-ran if you inserted certain audio CDs to play them on your computer. It literally REFLASHED YOUR DRIVE'S FIRMWARE to disable functions used by ripping software).

      The question isn't whether the NSA has malware like that. They absolutely do. Google "Advanced Persistent Threat" ("APT"), and know that it's common knowledge that the US, Russia, Britain, China, and Israel (plus countless more) ALL have state espionage agencies with the resources to develop and deploy APTs... and they actively do it every single day.

      The NSA is full of self-perceived super-patriots who've willingly sacrificed every shred of their own privacy, and see nothing wrong with inflicting large-scale collateral damage to American citizens' computer hardware in the holy name of protecting the American homeland from any threat... major or minor, real or perceived. To their mindset, if deploying malware to the laptops of 14 million American citizens crossing the border in some given year causes Windows (or any network hardware that might be subsequently used by those laptops) to occasionally crash for no apparent reason thereafter, but enables DHS to prevent a single terrorist attack, it's 100% worth it, and as far as they're concerned, anyone who thinks otherwise is an evil commie terrorist-loving scumbag who hates America.

  • Racism at work (Score:5, Insightful)

    by whoever57 ( 658626 ) on Sunday February 12, 2017 @11:21PM (#53853735) Journal
    Is there anyone here who doesn't think that the reason the guy was detained was because his skin color was too dark?
  • Could be worse (Score:5, Interesting)

    by RevDisk ( 740008 ) on Sunday February 12, 2017 @11:31PM (#53853781) Journal
    Back when I was in the Army, I unfortunately had a clearance. Which means when you go on TDY, you become a classified material pack mule. In this particular case, in addition to a bunch of sealed envelopes, I had to carry a stickered laptop. Unshockingly, electronics certified to handle classified material are labeled clearly to include the words "US Government Property" and "Protect from unauthorized disclosure". I was also traveling on a government purchased ticket using government ID. But in civvies, because post-9/11.

    Sadly didn't have my crypto carrier card as I wasn't carrying crypto material, that one gets you waved past any security checkpoint. TSA had semi-recently been spun up. Naturally US military people are high risk on aircraft, so we got selected for 'random searching'.

    TSA: Sign into the laptop and turn it over.
    Me: Uhm. No? It's a classified laptop, and I have no proof you have proper clearance.
    TSA: We handle government laptops all the time.
    Me: Not my problem. You can swab it for explosives all you want, but if it leaves my line of sight, I'm grabbing the real cops to arrest you while I call the FBI to report theft of classified material.

    They squawked like a bunch of chickens. Dumped out all of our stuff, triple checked everything. Sadly none of our stuff was easily breakable, because well, soldiers. Not for a lack of trying. They also tried to make us miss the flight. Like we cared, as again, government travel voucher. This was before body cavity searches and sexually assaulting folks, but it got pretty hands on. Laptop however remained within my line of sight and turned off the entire time. You could almost taste the bureaucrat rage. Got the "special" random selection treatment every time I flew (again, usually on govt dime) for a long while afterwards, so I guess they did get the last laugh.

    Hell, that's TSA and pretty expected. Fed buddy was made to bin his bottled water, but his loaded Sig and spare loaded magazines were fine. CBP made me dig out receipts to prove the booze I picked up in Ireland were from the duty free shop. I had him hold my SAW (a not small belt fed machine gun) while I dug around for the bottles and receipt. He didn't even blink. Never underestimate a government employee's ability to follow stupid rules.
    • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @12:15AM (#53853985)

      I see a good way of cleaning up the TSA here. Send military people, fully armed, on commercial flights, carrying classified information, with orders to protect--at all costs--this material from anyone without clearing accessing it. Anyone who attempts to take the material can be shot on sight.

    • Re:Could be worse (Score:5, Informative)

      by Goldsmith ( 561202 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @12:50AM (#53854119)

      Back when airport screeners were contractors they had the right to make that mistake and get a funny story out of it, but government employees can't legally ask you to turn that laptop on in public. The question itself was enough to get that guy arrested. When I was in civil service with DoD, I would travel without any government electronics if possible, because despite the laws, the TSA was a liability. Traveling internationally, forget about it, I don't think I was allowed to bring anything that had ever been in my lab with me. This NASA guy was on a personal trip to Chile with a phone with sensitive info on it... that's just stupid on his part. Get another phone for the trip.

      I used to do development and testing for explosives detectors. Nitro-toluenes are very, very hard to get off your skin and clothes. I was pulled aside for random searching and swabbed for explosives. So I come up positive for DNT residue. I thought this was great, because I wasn't sure the machines they were using at the time would pick up the very small amount of residue from somone who used appropriate lab attire (in-field positive test!). I then told them that the reading wasn't likely a false positive and that I worked with explosives. Maybe I should have led with my Navy ID and an explanation that I was a scientist in the civil service, but they did NOT like that I admitted to having explosives residue on me.

      • Re:Could be worse (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Strider- ( 39683 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @01:49AM (#53854359)

        I used to do development and testing for explosives detectors. Nitro-toluenes are very, very hard to get off your skin and clothes. I was pulled aside for random searching and swabbed for explosives.

        In a past life, I was a contractor who spent 3 months bouncing between FOBs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The day before I flew home, I was on a CH-53 flying back towards Kuwait where i caught commercial back to Canada. I was sitting next to the door gunner, and as we flew along I think we crossed a range, and he let loose a dozen or so rounds out of the .50 cal. I spent the entire trip home thinking "Please don't swab me, please don't swab me..." and thankfully they didn't. Of course, trying to explain where you had been for three months when you had two in/out visas from Kuwait and a blank spot in between was another matter...

  • by AHuxley ( 892839 ) on Sunday February 12, 2017 @11:38PM (#53853805) Journal
    what can be asked for when moving in and out of the USA.
    Having diplomatic immunity from another country is really the only way around that...
    If been from the USA was legally special, everyone from the USA would demand rights not to be searched..
    So Congress made sure everyone entering the USA would face equal, fair questions and searches.
    If a person would like not to be searched, find a way to get full diplomatic immunity...
    i.e. persons and property can be examined. No probable cause, no warrant, no "suspicion" protection to stop every search request.
    You can be searched, asked questions, have to show a device is what it should be.
    Until federal courts or Congress sets new laws or comments on the need for "suspicion" of criminal activity all searches are legal.
    Copies of your data are fine too. e.g. a camera can have its digital files looked at or recovered if deleted.
  • by ooloorie ( 4394035 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @12:15AM (#53853983)

    Here is the EFF advice for crossing borders with digital devices, from 2011:

    https://www.eff.org/wp/defendi... [eff.org]

  • by scottpig ( 1772644 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @12:21AM (#53854009)

    If the guy's abroad on a personal trip, why's he carrying his JPL issued phone with him? That seems like a security no-no.

    I've never worked at NASA but I have been issued equipment by government contractors and taking it out of the country while on personal trips was expressly forbidden. I never traveled abroad on company business but my understanding was that for at least some destinations the security department would require you to take a different laptop that only had the data you needed for the trip on it instead of your usual one. I'm not sure if that was for every destination or just for the more hostile ones.

  • by naughtynaughty ( 1154069 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @12:53AM (#53854137)

    Just put your data on a micro SD card and hide it in a Rubiks cube

  • by BBF_BBF ( 812493 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @03:27AM (#53854603)
    The proper procedure is: If stopped by any US agent and asked to reveal passwords for equipment issued by one's employer is to refuse to reveal the password until permission is granted from one's employer.

    The phone/computer/whatever IS NOT YOUR PROPERTY and ALL THE INFORMATION on it is the property of YOUR EMPLOYER.

    So just kindly tell the border agent that one must obtain permission from one's employer before revealing proprietary company information. Pretty much tell them that one has to get permission from one's company's legal department to reveal the unlock code for any company equipment because it's not one's own decision to make to reveal company proprietary information to a third party. That's pretty much standard policy for any company.

    However, if it's one personal device, it's definitely it's within one's right to not give the border agents the password, but then it's also the border agent's right to detain you till you do, or till some other agreement is reached. Unless you can contact a lawyer immediately and have the funds to pay one, then without a lawyer helping you out, it's going to be difficult for you to navigate the legal minefield.

    • by ledow ( 319597 )

      "but then it's also the border agent's right to detain you till you do"

      Or get a warrant to say it's necessary.
      Which would probably be refused.

      The fear of "we'll just hold you until you co-operate" is not due process.

      You object.
      You wait.
      Then you call in the lawyers (in this case JPL's, I imagine).
      Because - as stated - they have no right to demand the passcode.
      Hell, I'd be making them sign an NDA. As in YOU PERSONALLY sign the NDA to tell me what you'll do with the information in the phone. They'll refuse,

  • by buss_error ( 142273 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @04:17AM (#53854699) Homepage Journal

    As a matter of law, because he is not the owner, he cannot grant permission to search. Since he divulged his access, he and the TSA agent can be prosecuted under the CFAA.


    That being said, anyone carrying anything they wish to keep confidential within 200 miles of a boarder, or while not in your own home effectively has no rights at all. Not as a matter of law, but as a simple matter of fact. Not just 4th amendments rights either. The police shoot dead unarmed people at least two times a week on average. As a simple matter of statistics, you are 300 times (times, not percent) more likely to be killed by a police officer than you are by a terrorist.

    You people supporting these actions are insane.

  • by nehumanuscrede ( 624750 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @08:28AM (#53855419)

    The good folks in US Intelligence might want to whisper a few things into the ears of Customs regarding their search rules.

    It is a bit more difficult to keep tabs on folks traveling abroad when they decide to leave their tracking devices. . . . . .er phones at home due to the issues experienced at the borders.

  • Tourism drops (Score:4, Informative)

    by kaur ( 1948056 ) on Monday February 13, 2017 @10:02AM (#53855847)

    Travel / tourism to US is plummeting.
    The size of the effect varies by source:

    6.5% - http://www.reuters.com/article... [reuters.com]
    17% - http://time.com/money/4662727/... [time.com]
    25% - https://www.theguardian.com/tr... [theguardian.com]
    50% - http://ttgnordic.com/interest-... [ttgnordic.com]

    I am European.
    I have been to United States tens of times, both on company budget and on my own.
    I won't come back, unless pressed really hard by my employer.
    Why should I?
    The world is full of wonderful places.
    Why should I choose a country which is openly hostile to visitors?

"To take a significant step forward, you must make a series of finite improvements." -- Donald J. Atwood, General Motors