Chapter 3. DIYbio and the "New FBI"

Michael Scroggins

In 1936, sociologist Robert Merton wrote an article titled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposeful Social Action.” Merton argued that all purposeful action in the social world creates series of unanticipated consequences that trail the action as a wake trails a ship. Per Merton, this quality gives human action a reflexive character; consequences unforeseen at the initiation of a course of action often affect the very course of that action. Whereas some consequences are serendipitous, others are more ominous.

Which brings us to the 2012 FBI/DIYbio meeting in Walnut Creek, CA. During the three days of meetings, multiple FBI agents addressed the conference attendees and explained that they work for the “new FBI,” not the “old FBI.” At key points, FBI agents rose to their feet and gave the kind of personal testimony to the difference between the old FBI and new FBI that you might expect in an evangelical church. Whereas the old FBI was a policing agency that busted down doors, the new FBI is an intelligence organization that gathers, sorts, and most importantly, classifies information based on forecasted threats. The old FBI wanted to cuff you; the new FBI wants to get to know you.

The line demarcating the old from the new, per the agent’s testimony, was the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks. It was not the actual attacks per se, but rather the activities of the attackers in the months leading up to 9/11 that sparked the change at the FBI. The hijackers' flight training was referenced at multiple points as an example of something that the new FBI would be aware of through relationships forged with flight training instructors and that the old FBI would, and did, pass over. Which is to say, if you are doing something with biology outside of established institutional boundaries, then you will probably meet your local FBI agent at some point.

A serendipitous consequence of the FBI’s interest in DIYbio was the conference serving as a vehicle for the DIYbio community to meet face to face, which would be impossible without FBI sponsorship. While the FBI was busy lobbying 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 conference venue. A good portion of attendees must have taken note of the “FBI visit” instructions during a side trip to Noisebridge, a San Francisco hackerspace. Even more discussed strategies for working with or around the FBI in between more prosaic discussions about finding suitable landlords and insurance agents, talking to the media, dealing with local regulatory agencies, and attracting/vetting potential lab members.

A more ominous consequence was the implicit connection drawn by the FBI between DIYbio laboratories and flight schools. The new FBI assumes that DIYbio laboratories may be breeding terrorists along with bacteria. While the FBI is out to build friendly working relationships with DIYbio, the tacit admission that a DIYbio laboratory is a potential threat and amateur biologists, if not assumed guilty, are not assumed innocent either, is a new and consequential fact of living with the new FBI; the FBI directorate covering DIYbio falls under the rubric of weapons of mass destruction—and the harshest punishments the US government can offer. Finally, it is not at all clear how the FBI keeps tabs on the DIYbio community or with which other US government agencies (or foreign governments) they might share information. As Merton warned: “Here is the essential paradox of social action—the 'realization' of values may lead to their renunciation.”