When you cross into or out of the United States, whether in a car or at an airport, you enter a special zone where federal agents have unusual powers to search your belongings—powers they don’t have elsewhere in the country. The high standard set by the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against unreasonable searches, is lowered, and the Fifth Amendment, which guards against self-incrimination and prevents the government from demanding computer passwords or smartphone PINs, is rendered less effective.
These special rules allowed a customs officer at the Houston airport to ask a NASA engineer to give up the passcode to his smartphone last month. The engineer, Sidd Bikkannavar, was reentering the U.S. after a two-week vacation in Chile, but the device he had on him belonged to his employer, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He routinely used the smartphone for sensitive work, so losing sight of it for a half hour was a “huge, huge violation of work policy,” Bikkannavar told me.
After he was released, Bikkannavar immediately got a new phone from his employer and changed his PIN. But what if he hadn’t, and then traveled internationally again? If he were selected a second time for questioning at the border, the officer interviewing him would check at the record from Bikkannavar’s last run-in with Customs and Border Protection—which may include the passcode that he revealed to an agent.