How the FBI spreads DIYBio

For more than a year now I have been conducting research on DIYBio . In a lucky break, the FBI convened a conference on DIYBio and Security this past summer, which I managed to attend. The conference lasted three days with sessions in the morning and afternoon. Some sessions were reserved for the FBI to discuss safety scenarios and other topics of special concern to them, and others for the invitees to discuss their lab.  The FBI isn’t shy about their involvement, and have even recorded a few short podcasts on the their interest in amateur science: FBI Podcast

The FBI has a long standing institutional interest in avoiding surprise. Since 911, avoiding surprise has taken the form of focusing on what Rumsfeld famously called the “ unknowns.” Like most American policing organizations, the FBI is now primarily an intelligence organization that gathers, sorts, and most importantly classifies information based on forecasted security threats. Which is to say, if you are doing something with technology or science that is outside of institutional boundaries, then you will probably meet your local FBI agent at some point. Or, as was the case with most attendees at this conference, the FBI will send you a polite letter and a plane ticket requesting that you come tell them a little about yourself.

While the FBI was busy lobbying the attendees about the benefits of getting to know their local anti-terrorism agent, a counter education was taking place during informal get-togethers  outside the bounds of the conference venue. A good portion of attendees must have taken note of this sign in a side trip to Noisebridge . Even more discussed strategies for working with or around the FBI in between more prosaic discussions about finding suitable landlords and insurance agents, dealing with local regulatory agencies, and attracting/vetting potential lab members.

Getting to Know the “New FBI”

Safety, the watchword of our time.

Over the three days of meetings, most FBI agents began their remarks by stressing  that they work for the “new FBI”, which operates in a different manner than the “old FBI”. A few times FBI agents rose to their feet and gave the kind of personal testimony to the difference between the “old” and “new FBI” that you might expect to see in an evangelical church. One agent in particular noted the majority of agents at the conference were hired post-911 and have no first hand experience of the “old FBI.” The “new FBI” would prefer to speak calmly with you about your activities rather than bust down your door and risk a PR disaster such as the Kurz incident. The first rule of the “new FBI” is safety through observation rather than justice through apprehension.

The line dividing the old and new, per the agents testimony, was the string of events leading up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It was not the actual attacks, per se, but rather the activities of the attackers around the US in the months leading up to 9/11 which marks the point of departure between old and new FBI. In particular, the peculiarities of the 911 hijackers flight training was used as an example of something the “new FBI” would be aware of through relationships forged with flight training instructors. The comparison of a DIYBio lab with a flight school was left implicit, but was hard to miss. You could be breeding terrorists along with bacteria. The second rule of the “new FBI” is leverage the power of the crowd to extend the reach of your observational apparatus.

Paradoxically, and this says something about the uncomfortable nature of policing in the current clime, by hosting this conference over the last 3 years and expanding the list of invitees each year, the FBI has become one of the most important institutions in the global spread of DIYBio. The number of people involved in DIYBio is small enough that practitioners can get to know one another on a personal level.  Of course, this can only become possible if an organization with deep pockets is willing to fly everyone to the same location so they can spend time socializing. With no academic or industry organization to sponsor them all, the FBI conference is the only way DIYBio can have a venue to share ideas and socialize face to face. No doubt, next year there will be more DIYBio labs and they will be better organized and their projects more complex due to the FBI sponsored conference. This too must be a commandment of the new FBI: Establish a symbiotic relationship with that which you wish to police and your budget will never be lacking.