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A US-born NASA scientist was detained at the border until he unlocked his phone

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Two weeks ago, Sidd Bikkannavar flew back into the United States after spending a few weeks abroad in South America. An employee of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Bikkannavar had been on a personal trip, pursuing his hobby of racing solar-powered cars. He had recently joined a Chilean team, and spent the last weeks of January at a race in Patagonia.

Bikkannavar is a seasoned international traveller — but his return home to the US this time around was anything but routine. Bikkannavar left for South America on January 15th, under the Obama Administration. He flew back from Santiago, Chile to the George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas on Monday, January 30th, just over a week into the Trump Administration.

Bikkannavar says he was detained by US Customs and Border Patrol and pressured to give the CBP 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 JPL scientist returned to the US four days after the signing of a sweeping and controversial Executive Order on travel into the country. The travel ban caused chaos at airports across the United States, as people with visas and green cards found themselves detained, or facing deportation. Within days of its signing, the travel order was stayed, but not before more than 60,000 visas were revoked, according to the US State Department.

Homeland Security Chief Jeh Johnson Tours TSA Security Operation At LAX Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

His ordeal also took place at a time of renewed focus on the question of how much access CBP can have to a traveler’s digital information, whether or not they’re US citizens: in January, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed complaints against CBP for demanding that Muslim American citizens give up their social media information when they return home from overseas. And there’s evidence that that kind of treatment could become commonplace for foreign travelers. In a statement this week, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said that people visiting the United States may be asked to give up passwords to their social media accounts. "We want to get on their social media, with passwords: What do you do, what do you say?" Kelly told the House Homeland Security Committee. "If they don't want to cooperate then you don't come in."

Seemingly, Bikkannavar’s reentry into the country should not have raised any flags. Not only is he a natural-born US citizen, but he’s also enrolled in Global Entry — a program through CBP that allows individuals who have undergone background checks to have expedited entry into the country. He hasn’t visited the countries listed in the immigration ban and he has worked at JPL — a major center at a US federal agency — for 10 years. There, he works on “wavefront sensing and control,” a type of optics technology that will be used on the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

“I don’t know what to think about this,” Bikkannavar recently told The Verge in a phone call. “...I was caught a little off guard by the whole thing.”

Bikkannavar says he arrived into Houston early Tuesday morning, and was detained by CBP after his passport was scanned. A CBP officer escorted Bikkannavar to a back room, and told him to wait for additional instructions. About five other travelers who had seemingly been affected by the ban were already in the room, asleep on cots that were provided for them.

About 40 minutes went by before an officer appeared and called Bikkannavar’s name. “He takes me into an interview room and sort of explains that I’m entering the country and they need to search my possessions to make sure I’m not bringing in anything dangerous,” he says. The CBP officer started asking questions about where Bikkannavar was coming from, where he lives, and his title at work. It’s all information the officer should have had since Bikkannavar is enrolled in Global Entry. “I asked a question, ‘Why was I chosen?’ And he wouldn’t tell me,” he says.

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.”

 NASA
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Courts have upheld customs agents' power to manually search devices at the border, but any searches made solely on the basis of race or national origin are still illegal. More importantly, travelers are not legally required to unlock their devices, although agents can detain them for significant periods of time if they do not. “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,” Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of CAIR Florida, told The Verge. “They’re not obligated to unlock the phone.”

Nevertheless, Bikkannavar was not allowed to leave until he gave CBP his PIN. The officer insisted that CBP had the authority to search the phone. The document given to Bikkannavar listed a series of consequences for failure to offer information that would allow CBP to copy the contents of the device. “I didn’t really want to explore all those consequences,” he says. “It mentioned detention and seizure.” Ultimately, he agreed to hand over the phone and PIN. The officer left with the device and didn’t return for another 30 minutes.

Eventually, the phone was returned to Bikkannavar, though he’s not sure what happened during the time it was in the officer’s possession. When it was returned he immediately turned it off because he knew he had to take it straight to the IT department at JPL. Once he arrived in Los Angeles, he went to NASA and told his superiors what had happened. Bikkannavar can’t comment on what may or may not have been on the phone, but he says the cybersecurity team at JPL was not happy about the breach. Bikkannavar had his phone on hand while he was traveling in case there was a problem at work that needed his attention, but NASA employees are obligated to protect work-related information, no matter how minuscule. We reached out to JPL for comment, but the center didn’t comment on the event directly.

Bikkannavar noted that the entire interaction with CBP was incredibly professional and friendly, and the officers confirmed everything Bikkannavar had said through his Global Entry background checks. CBP did not respond to a request for comment.

He posted an update on Facebook about what happened, and the story has since been shared more than 2,000 times. A friend also tweeted about Bikkannavar’s experience, which was also shared more than 7,000 times. Still, he’s left wondering the point of the search, and he’s upset that the search potentially compromised the privacy of his friends, family, and coworkers who were listed on his phone. He has since gotten a completely new device from work with a new phone number.

“It was not that they were concerned with me bringing something dangerous in, because they didn’t even touch the bags. They had no way of knowing I could have had something in there,” he says. “You can say, ‘Okay well maybe it’s about making sure I’m not a dangerous person,’ but they have all the information to verify that.”

Bikkannavar says he’s still unsure why he was singled out for the electronic search. He says he understands that his name is foreign — its roots go back to southern India. But it shouldn’t be a trigger for extra scrutiny, he says. “Sometimes I get stopped and searched, but never anything like this. Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban.”

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zipcube
7 days ago
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incredible
Dallas, Texas
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christophersw
7 days ago
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Here's some thoughtful analysis of the legal issues here:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/volokh-conspiracy/wp/2017/02/13/can-federal-agents-detain-citizens-at-border-checkpoints-until-they-disclose-their-smartphone-passcodes/?utm_term=.4a2e71ecb717
Baltimore, MD
rlauzon
7 days ago
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I love how they tie this to the Trump administration, when the TSA has been doing this for a long time now.
dukeofwulf
7 days ago
Trump is doubling down on this type of scrutiny, emboldening agents to go further than they might have otherwise.
rlauzon
7 days ago
The TSA agents have already been going too far. Check out all the videos on YouTube where they sexually molest children. The only difference is that the media didn't report it then.
kazriko
7 days ago
One reason I'm probably not fighting stuff like this these days as much as I should was that I spent the last 16 years complaining about these sorts of issues under two presidencies. I still can't get people to admit that, just maybe, the government shouldn't be holding onto powers like this regardless of who is in charge. Their complaints are usually that the other side shouldn't have these powers.
skorgu
7 days ago
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"I'm a US citizen and cannot be denied entry"

There’s a big spike in Google searches related to World War II

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Enlarge / The burning of the Reichstag in 1933. Google searches for information about the Reichstag fire have shot up in the past two weeks. (credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

World War II is having a moment, at least in the minds of people doing Google searches. Google Trends, a tool that measures the popularity of search terms over time, shows that there have been dramatic spikes in searches for topics related to the war, including: Reichstag fire, Pearl Harbor, fascism, Kristallnacht, and Nazi Germany.

Searches for “Reichstag fire,” the event that precipitated Adolph Hitler’s declaration of martial law in 1933, peaked worldwide the month after the Brexit vote in England and again in October 2016 before the US election. Those searches eventually reached an exceptional five-year high in the first week of February 2017. In the United States, searches related to the event when Dutch communist Marinus van der Lubbe lit the German parliament building on fire were most popular in Arizona and New Hampshire.

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zipcube
12 days ago
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Dallas, Texas
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kemayo
15 days ago
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Alternately... I have a kid. But she's fairly self reliant, and can handle herself if I sleep in.
St Louis, MO
adamcole
15 days ago
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Who wants my fucking kids
Philadelphia, PA, USA
kleer001
16 days ago
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True... But then again this attitude is an evolutionary dead end.
ryanbrazell
16 days ago
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L O L

This was actually my same train of thought this morning, when I slept until 11am.
Richmond, VA

How Google fought back against a crippling IoT-powered botnet and won

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Enlarge (credit: Alex Eylar)

OAKLAND, Calif.—In September, KrebsOnSecurity—arguably the Internet's most intrepid source of security news—was on the receiving end of some of the biggest distributed denial-of-service attacks ever recorded. The site soon went dark after Akamai said it would no longer provide the site with free protection, and no other DDoS mitigation services came forward to volunteer their services. A Google-operated service called Project Shield ultimately brought KrebsOnSecurity back online and has been protecting the site ever since.

At the Enigma security conference on Wednesday, a Google security engineer described some of the behind-the-scenes events that occurred shortly after Krebs asked the service for help, and in the months since, they said yes. While there was never significant hesitancy to bring him in, the engineers did what engineers always do—weighed the risks against the benefits.

"What happens if this botnet actually takes down google.com and we lose all of our revenue?" Google Security Reliability Engineer Damian Menscher recalls people asking. "But we considered [that] if the botnet can take us down, we're probably already at risk anyway. There's nothing stopping them from attacking us at any time. So we really had nothing to lose here."

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zipcube
13 days ago
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Google Brain super-resolution image tech makes “zoom, enhance!” real

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(credit: Google Brain)

Google Brain has devised some new software that can create detailed images from tiny, pixelated source images. Google's software, in short, basically means the "zoom in... now enhance!" TV trope is actually possible.

(credit: Google Brain)

First, take a look at the image on the right. The left column contains the pixelated 8×8 source images, and the centre column shows the images that Google Brain's software was able to create from those source images. For comparison, the real images are shown in the right column. As you can see, the software seemingly extracts an amazing amount of detail from just 64 source pixels.

Of course, as we all know, it's impossible to create more detail than there is in the source image—so how does Google Brain do it? With a clever combination of two neural networks.

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zipcube
13 days ago
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wreichard
12 days ago
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Bladerunner will finally work!
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Judge orders halt to Trump’s immigration executive order

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Enlarge / Demonstrators at Philadelphia International Airport recently protest against the executive order that President Donald Trump signed clamping down on refugee admissions and temporarily restricting travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries. (credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images)

A federal judge has blocked President Donald Trump's immigration executive order, which has spurred many lawsuits and has been deeply castigated by tech sector bosses.

Trump's order Friday halted refugee arrivals for 120 days and banned for 90 days citizens of Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen. US District Judge Andre Birotte Jr. issued an emergency order, which became public Wednesday, that forbids the government from enforcing Trump's order on those entering the US with a valid immigrant visa from the seven countries Trump listed. The order by the President Barack Obama appointee, however, was silent about refugees trying to enter the country, and it also did not mention the fate of tourists or others with non-immigrant visas.

Here's the important part of the ruling:

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