Ed You: So, good morn­ing. Before I start I want to say a big thank you the Media Lab and Joi for the invi­ta­tion. I con­sid­er it a priv­i­lege to be able speak to you all. And I’m just going to go ahead and launch right into it because it’s prob­a­bly going to be some­thing you haven’t quite expect­ed from the FBI. But let me set the tone by say­ing it’s not only in keep­ing with today’s theme of defi­ance, but I’m going to even go so far as say­ing that you’re going to see some out­right aber­ra­tions and what that trans­lates into.

Photos of various TV represenations of FBI agents

So when you saw the agen­da and you saw the FBI, maybe this sort of came to mind. Of course, right? And you saw me com­ing onto the stage so I’m sor­ry if I dis­ap­point­ed. But Hollywood built its rep­u­ta­tion on our agency because if you think about it, we are a law enforce­ment agency and we are very good at what we do when it comes to inves­ti­ga­tions. But in today’s world, if you think about where things are going, inves­ti­ga­tions does­n’t work any­more in the fact that it’s inher­ent­ly reac­tive. Meaning that some­thing hap­pens, we go in after the fact and, we do our inves­ti­ga­tions, col­lect our evi­dence, find the perpetrator.

Well, unfor­tu­nate­ly September 11, 2001, 911, was a huge wake up call for the entire US and the FBI in par­tic­u­lar. And in light of this rep­u­ta­tion and our lega­cy, because we are over one hun­dred years old, we had to defy our own her­itage. And if you look at our num­ber one pri­or­i­ty now, it’s one of pre­ven­tion. How do you stop some­thing like 911 from ever hap­pen­ing again? 

And I’m a prod­uct of that defi­ance even with­in the orga­ni­za­tion. Because my background—and there’s a rea­son why I think I’m actu­al­ly bet­ter than these guys—is that my back­ground’s— I’m a bio­chemist and mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gist by train­ing. And I think pre 911, the FBI prob­a­bly would not have hired some­one like me. But in this world where that num­ber one pri­or­i­ty is to pro­tect our coun­try and all of you, our hir­ing prac­tices have diver­si­fied over time.

But I have to give a hats off, and this is a shame­less plug, but one of the key com­po­nents of our being able to be dif­fer­ent is this impor­tant posi­tion with­in the FBI, the WMD Coordinator. These are spe­cial agents, men and women that are trained in chem­i­cal, bio­log­i­cal, radi­o­log­i­cal, and nuclear mat­ters. They are your local ambas­sador. And there’s at least one sta­tion in each of our fifty-six field offices across the US. I’m very pleased to intro­duce Special Agent Josh Canter. He is the Assistant WMD Coordinator here right in the Boston field office. And again, if you’re in the area please say hel­lo to him because they are the ones that reach out and pro­vide con­nec­tions to state and local law enforce­ment, to pub­lic health. They proac­tive­ly, before any­thing hap­pens, reached out to hos­pi­tals, com­pa­nies, uni­ver­si­ties, oth­er insti­tu­tions with­in their juris­dic­tion, to estab­lish those impor­tant part­ner­ships before some­thing hap­pens. Or in the case that some­thing does hap­pen, now you know some­body with­in the FBI that under­stands where you’re com­ing from and that can ade­quate­ly assess what the issues are and pro­vide assistance.

So before I actu­al­ly talk a lit­tle bit about what defi­ance looks like from our pro­gram’s stand­point, I want to set the stage for you where we’re look­ing right now. Because the 21st cen­tu­ry is going to be the cen­tu­ry of life sci­ences, where in the pri­or cen­tu­ry it was all about the Internet, the infor­ma­tion age, and per­son­al com­put­ing. This cen­tu­ry’s all going to be about what the impact is going to be of bio in our lives. And that holds huge amounts of promise, but it also pos­es some inter­est­ing secu­ri­ty ques­tions for us.

So, just a few years ago there were a few pub­li­ca­tions that came out on how two research groups, one in the Netherlands and one here in the US, mod­i­fied bird flu and made it trans­mis­si­ble amongst mam­mals. So osten­si­bly it could poten­tial­ly be— You know, usu­al­ly it’s a one-off where you get exposed to the bird flu, an indi­vid­ual gets infect­ed, it impacts them, it does­n’t get passed on to anoth­er human. Well this group made the mod­i­fi­ca­tions where it could get past amongst fer­ret to fer­ret to fer­ret, and osten­si­bly it could be amongst humans.

This caused a huge issue because now the sto­ries flew that oh my gosh, this is 28 Days Later, this is the zom­bie apoc­a­lypse. You’re going to now pro­duce the next pan­dem­ic. And there was a lot of pol­i­cy dis­cus­sions about the poten­tial con­se­quences of this. So it’s a biose­cu­ri­ty issue.

In the wake of a handful of biosafety lapses at federal research facilities, the US government is temporarily halting funding for new studies aiming to give novel functions to influenza, SARS, and MERS viruses.

Moratorium on Gain-of-Function Research; The Scientist, October 212014

And as a result of this there was actu­al­ly a com­plete mora­to­ri­um on this line of research, glob­al­ly. Think about that for a sec­ond. The entire inter­na­tion­al sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty pushed pause on research in this area. Because they did­n’t want to do a reassess­ment on look­ing at the safe­ty and secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions. That does­n’t hap­pen very often. But it just shows you they took it upon them­selves to look at what the impli­ca­tions were.

But here’s the dark side of what poten­tial­ly could hap­pen. This is a snap­shot from a blog. And look at the text here. It says mad sci­en­tists cre­ate bird flu genetically-modified bioter­ror­ism virus.” So one thing’s for sure, the US gov­ern­ment is not in the busi­ness of doing bioter­ror­ism research. It char­ac­ter­izes sci­en­tists as being mad. And the only sav­ing grace is that at least in the pic­ture it’s a CIA patch and not the FBI patch. So I’m kind of grate­ful for that. Small favors.

But the point here is how we com­mu­ni­cate how sci­ence is being done and why. Yes it’s a blog. But this is an indi­ca­tion of the gen­er­al pub­lic. And where does sci­ence get its resources, the fund­ing to do the work like in places like MIT? It’s tax­pay­er mon­ey. This is the gen­er­al pub­lic. This is where the fund­ing for research comes from. So if we don’t get the mes­sage right, this could be the blow­back. So one of the con­se­quences for secu­ri­ty that we often­times don’t real­ly think about. 

And here’s anoth­er snap­shot of where biotech is tak­ing us today, too. So, syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy. We are able to man­u­fac­ture DNA very very effi­cient­ly. And just as a case study, look at the 1918 influen­za virus. This is Spanish flu” went around the world twice, respon­si­ble for thir­ty to fifty mil­lion fatal­i­ties. It’s only 13,500 nucleotides long. So 13,500 of those As, Cs, Gs, and Ts of the DNA sequence. Theoretically, you can email that small text file to a DNA com­pa­ny that adver­tis­es they syn­the­size DNA at sev­en cents per base. You could get the 1918 influen­za virus for the bar­gain base­ment price and $945.

So I say the­o­ret­i­cal­ly because well…you know, some issues for try­ing to do that. And how that hap­pened is that some­thing like that actu­al­ly hap­pened a few years back. A reporter for The Guardian sent with a Yahoo! email account a per­son­al cred­it card and an apart­ment address, a DNA order emailed to a com­pa­ny and with­in a month got his order in the mail. And inside the plas­tic vial was the DNA for small­pox. Really bad. And his result­ing sto­ry was, Wow. The laws don’t exist to pre­vent a bad guy from order­ing small­pox or ebo­la and get­ting it in the mail.”

And the blow­back here was it was a firestorm of secu­ri­ty dis­cus­sions on the pol­i­cy. Companies, the whole entire pri­vate sec­tor did a gut check. And then today, if you sub­mit an order, the order is screened and the cus­tomer is screened. So the com­pa­nies know what they’re mak­ing and who they’re sell­ing it to. So this was a lit­tle bit of a close call. 

Slide from slide deck at DIYbio

And some­thing that’s real­ly cool and a whole cre­ative form of defi­ance is the dawn of the age of DIY bio, the ama­teur bio­hack­er. So these are indi­vid­u­als, not only in the US but inter­na­tion­al­ly now, that firm­ly believe it this is the cen­tu­ry of the life sci­ences, the next Bill Gates, the next Steve Jobs, is going to come out of bio. I firm­ly believe that too. 

But they also believe that it’s not fair that only com­pa­nies and uni­ver­si­ties or the gov­ern­ments can actu­al­ly do orig­i­nal research. So they took it upon them­selves to— Let’s break into this field. Let’s democ­ra­tize sci­ence. And so rang­ing from PhDs all the way to artists and musi­cians and archi­tects are get­ting involved in bio­log­i­cal research. 

And you see the evo­lu­tion of things like not only garage labs but com­mu­ni­ty labs where like-minded indi­vid­u­als come togeth­er and pool their resources, buy used equip­ment, go for their own pet projects. And it real­ly is if you think about it, a defi­ance in the aca­d­e­m­ic mod­els of being able to con­duct research is set up. 

Biohackers, open your box­es!, Makery, March 142017

And that has also evolved into some real­ly cool inno­va­tion. So things like hav­ing an actu­al lab­o­ra­to­ry in a box that’s the size of a Japanese ben­to lunch box. One of the ones that are more inter­est­ing is the one on the far right. You can get your own home genome edit­ing kit. So for those of you famil­iar, CRISPR/Cas9 is a big big issue in the news right now. But now you actu­al­ly have a kit that you can do your own gene edit­ing at home. Very very cool.

The point is is that this is a com­mu­ni­ty where it’s a gen­uine engine of inno­va­tion. So if you think about the per­son­al com­put­ing age, it all start­ed with the Homebrew Computer Club, and that all start­ed in their own garages as well, too.

Top U.S. Intelligence Official Calls Gene Editing a WMD Threat, MIT Technology Review, February 92016

But then you have things like this in the back­ground, where the for­mer direc­tor of the nation­al intel­li­gence com­mit­tee said that gene edit­ing? It’s the equiv­a­lent of a weapon of mass destruc­tion. So in the same list where you talk about North Korea and their nuclear pro­gram, Iran and their nuclear pro­gram, and then gene edit­ing. Well, unfor­tu­nate­ly that stone was set and some of the con­se­quences, though, is this: that you actu­al­ly have coun­tries tar­get­ing the bio­hack­ers, the ama­teur com­mu­ni­ty. That in light of well, unless you have the prop­er autho­riza­tions and the per­mits and the licens­ing, they can drop the ham­mer on you. Even if it’s going to be legit­i­mate, inno­v­a­tive research.

But what’s the dark side of that, poten­tial­ly? Well, you might have this:

A garage whose door has been spray­paint­ed I don’t have a meth lab (nev­er ever) leave me alone”

If it becomes so bur­den­some on the com­mu­ni­ty, you’ll dri­ve it under­ground. And in the grand scheme of things, do you want this to be the lev­el of dis­course between gov­ern­ments and oth­er enti­ties with the ama­teur com­mu­ni­ty? Absolutely not. If any­thing this is going to cause more prob­lems than solv­ing any.

So, what I’m try­ing artic­u­late here is that there is a real­ly fine bal­ance between how do you spur and invig­o­rate inno­va­tion, and then also address secu­ri­ty at the same time. Because one can­not drown out the oth­er. Because you’re going to have all kinds of issues.

Say for exam­ple you do drop the bomb on the reg­u­la­tions and make it so hard to do research, all in the name of secu­ri­ty? That is a whole oth­er secu­ri­ty risk. Now you’re going to be hin­der­ing inno­va­tion. You’re going to be block­ing devel­op­ments of new health tools, new treat­ments, new vaccines.

So you can’t have that, either. So there is a sweet spot where you are able to sup­port both. And that’s where we come into the pic­ture. Like I said, the FBI’s his­to­ry and lega­cy was all about the reac­tive let’s go get the bad guy.” Now it’s about how do we pro­tect every­one? How do we pro­tect this impor­tant inno­va­tion? And if you real­ly think about that, that is so out­side the norm. That is not your typ­i­cal law enforce­ment per­spec­tive. And that’s why we’ve heav­i­ly been engaged in let’s go out and reach out to the communities.” 

Because if you real­ly want to be able to pro­tect the things like biol­o­gy, which is inher­ent­ly open, which is inher­ent­ly shared, that’s its strength? Putting up walls is not the answer. One of the best ways is let’s [go] and join up with the com­mu­ni­ty togeth­er. And safe­guard­ing science.

Have fun! Be guardians of science! Pass it on!

And this is actu­al­ly the mes­sage that we use when we go out and talk to the bio­hack­ers and the stu­dents of the world. It’s three very sim­ple tenets, which we dep­u­tize.” One, be pas­sion­ate about what you do. You’re not going to suc­ceed in life unless you find some­thing that you can real­ly glom onto, real­ly are will­ing to put in your blood, sweat, and tears into, and that’s how you’re real­ly going to succeed.

And then also be guardians of sci­ence. It’s not just pro­tect­ing the integri­ty of sci­ence, but make sure it does­n’t get abused, exploit­ed, or misused.

And then third and prob­a­bly most impor­tant­ly, pass it on. How do you now become a men­tor to those who come after you, to pass on these tenets? That’s the mes­sage. It’s not thou shalt not, it is how do we togeth­er pro­tect this impor­tant enterprise?

And one exam­ple of this is that we became spon­sors of some­thing called iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machine com­pe­ti­tion. This is an inter­na­tion­al syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy com­pe­ti­tion tar­get­ing under­grad­u­ates and high school­ers. This start­ed in 2004 with just five US-based uni­ver­si­ties and six­ty stu­dents alto­geth­er. Over time it has now grown—I think last com­pe­ti­tion had over 7,000 par­tic­i­pants from over 140 uni­ver­si­ties and from more than 40 countries.

And my pro­gram has become a spon­sor of iGEM in 2009. And that raised a lot of eye­brows ini­tial­ly when I tried to push this through. Why do you want to sup­port a sci­ence fair?” But the point is that if you look here, this is the cut­ting edge of biol­o­gy. This is actu­al­ly the gen­e­sis of the ama­teur bio­hack­er com­mu­ni­ty. Because they got a taste of how pow­er­ful biol­o­gy is, what the promise can be. And how can they do more out­side of even a com­pe­ti­tion? Outside of com­pa­nies. Outside of universities. 

And here’s a real­ly cool exam­ple that not only has this com­pe­ti­tion over the years engaged in look­ing at the mer­its of the projects, but they look at the safe­ty. And they also look at the secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions. And it has­n’t just been you know, here’s the FBI talk­ing about pro­tect­ing sci­ence. But you actu­al­ly see some real­ly cool action. 

Security page, iGEM wiki

And this is a team from China. This iGEM team, they had their sci­en­tif­ic project. But then they real­ized let’s do some­thing regard­ing secu­ri­ty.” And they they tack­led this project. They iden­ti­fied sev­en­teen Chinese med­ical com­pa­nies that had poten­tial­ly very dan­ger­ous, haz­ardous prod­ucts. And again using just a per­son­al cred­it card, a res­i­den­tial address, they sub­mit­ted these orders to all sev­en­teen com­pa­nies. And to their dis­may they found that six­teen out of the sev­en­teen com­pa­nies were going to say, Okay, we’re going to ship it to you.” 

The stu­dents imme­di­ate­ly can­celed the orders and they draft­ed a white paper, a let­ter, crit­i­ciz­ing the Chinese gov­ern­ment for not doing more to pro­tect the pub­lic, to pro­tect sci­ence, and sent it to the rel­e­vant Chinese agen­cies. What a fan­tas­tic act of defi­ance that is. That not only did they do their sci­ence project, but they actu­al­ly took the extra step.

And rest assured, they did­n’t dis­ap­pear. They actu­al­ly did become men­tors of their own iGEM teams. But don’t look at just the act. Think about this for a sec­ond. Look at that pic­ture of those young faces. That’s the next gen­er­a­tion of future sci­en­tists. Maybe future own­ers of their own com­pa­nies. Or even ide­al­ly, maybe they’re going to be there the pol­i­cy mem­bers that we might be sit­ting across the table from in nego­ti­a­tions when we’re in diplo­ma­cy. And yet they had this lit­tle bit of a nugget of what it means to, in this act of defi­ance, become group true cit­i­zens of sci­ence and be able to pro­tect it. Even from their own gov­ern­ment. So, very pro­found. But it’s just a lit­tle bit of engage­ment of the FBI just going a lit­tle bit beyond its com­fort lev­el. But this is one of the results that you can get.

We also engage the bio­hack­er com­mu­ni­ty. We have reg­u­lar mee­tups. And we pro­vide a meet­ing space. We bring in rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the hack­er com­mu­ni­ty. And those all-important WMD coor­di­na­tors, your local rep­re­sen­ta­tive, mak­ing sure that they know who their local FBI rep­re­sen­ta­tive is. And this has been wild­ly suc­cess­ful. Here’s a quote from one of the founders of one of those com­mu­ni­ty labs I men­tioned. They say, We reached out to our local WMD Coordinator, invit­ed them to our grand open­ing. And the FBI wish­es us well because they know the more edu­cat­ed the pub­lic is,” you know, they have a hack­er com­mu­ni­ty, about what could con­sti­tute a bio­log­i­cal threat, the eas­i­er its job is going to be.”

We reached out to our local weapons of mass destruc­tion coor­di­na­tor. We are very friend­ly with our local FBI rep­re­sen­ta­tive. He has come to our work­shops and he came to our opening.

The FBI wish­es us well because they know the more edu­cat­ed the pub­lic is about what would con­sti­tute a bio­log­i­cal threat, the eas­i­er its job is going to be.
Dr. Ellen Jorgensen, Genspace, Dawn of the BioHackers, Discover Magazine, October 2011 [pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

This is won­der­ful because it’s not FBI, it’s not Ed You say­ing it, it’s a mem­ber of the hack­er com­mu­ni­ty. And again, read into this for a sec­ond. This is a com­mu­ni­ty that is very anti-establishment. They don’t want to be bound­ed by any­thing. And yet, under the con­text of safe­guard­ing sci­ence, they’re will­ing to work and want to work with the epit­o­me of the G. And that is real­ly some­thing pret­ty powerful.

Also, you have things like this. Hey! Invite your local FBI agent to your local bio­hack­er event. And by the way that pic­ture up there, that was in Boston and that was Josh Canter in that pic­ture. But again, how dif­fer­ent is that in that if the mem­bers of the com­mu­ni­ties wel­come us with open arms and want­i­ng us to be there to talk about what does it mean to become a guardian of science.

As the field pro­gress­es, the gov­ern­ment should con­tin­ue to assess spe­cif­ic secu­ri­ty and safe­ty risks of syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy research activ­i­ties in both insti­tu­tion­al and non-institutional set­tings (DIYbio).

From cutting-edge aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tutes, to indus­tri­al research cen­ters, to pri­vate lab­o­ra­to­ries in base­ments and garages, progress is increas­ing­ly dri­ven by inno­va­tion and open access to insights and mate­ri­als need­ed to advance indi­vid­ual initiatives.
[from pre­sen­ta­tion slide]

And here’s where it gets very very inter­est­ing. That over the years, again through these small but sig­nif­i­cant suc­cess­es, whether it’s through uni­ver­si­ties, com­pa­nies, with stu­dents, with bio­hack­ers, the world’s start­ing to take notice. That here up top you had President Obama charge a com­mis­sion to look at biotech­nol­o­gy and syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy and where it’s going. And this com­mis­sion actu­al­ly high­light­ed the FBI’s best prac­tice of reach­ing out to the com­mu­ni­ty and build­ings those all-important bridges. We actu­al­ly have a pres­i­den­tial nation­al strat­e­gy to coun­ter­ing bio­log­i­cal threats, and it says that hey, DIY bio? It’s a good thing. We need more of that. We need to pro­tect it. And then you even have a report com­ing out of the United Nations say­ing this type of proac­tive out­reach by a nation­al law enforce­ment agency? That needs to be emulated. 

And a lit­tle bit of an anec­dote. One of the mee­tups that we had between our­selves and the DIY bio com­mu­ni­ty, there was one rep­re­sen­ta­tive from an inter­na­tion­al lab. Was so gung-ho about want­i­ng to do some­thing sim­i­lar when they went back to their home coun­try. They went to their nation­al police head­quar­ters, knocked on the door and said, Hey! I’m a DIY bio-er. And the response was, Who the heck are you and what the hell are you doing?’ ” So it just shows you that yeah, we’re doing right, we’re mak­ing progress here. But it can’t just be here. Bio is—again, it’s inter­na­tion­al, it’s glob­al, it knows no bound­aries. But if we want to pro­tect and make sure that it does­n’t get abused, the same kind of engage­ment and edu­ca­tion and part­ner­ship build­ing has to hap­pen else­where as well, too.

And at the end of the day, it’s not just about the pro­tect­ing of biol­o­gy or the guardian­ship, but it’s real­ly this kind of impact­ful­ness. That this is the lev­el of engage­ment that we’re get­ting. That this up and com­ing gen­er­a­tion are going to be the ones that are going to have their own acts of defi­ance. That if they’re will­ing to go beyond the norms of what their typ­i­cal lives are going to be in acad­e­mia. That they want to take that extra step. If you’re a hack­er and you’re build­ing your own gene edit­ing kit, then yeah let’s go ahead and work with the FBI. Let’s go ahead and invite them out to din­ner and have a conversation.

The beau­ty of this, too, is that this is a lit­tle bit of a push­ing the com­fort lev­el. It not only gets the mes­sage out, but as I just show­cased, mem­bers of the hack­er com­mu­ni­ty can actu­al­ly come up with solu­tions on behalf of the FBI. And ide­al­ly, too, that… We’ve done this long enough that there are actu­al­ly some of these indi­vid­u­als that are apply­ing to the FBI. What a fan­tas­tic act of defi­ance that is, that— [audi­ence laugh­ter] Right? You’re going to be a hack­er? You’re going to be a bio­engi­neer or bio­chemist? I’m a good exam­ple here, right. I’m a prime, second-generation Asian American, and par­ents were hop­ing for an engi­neer or a physi­cian. Ended up being a spe­cial agent. Sorry, mom and dad.

But how awe­some is that if you have mem­bers of this com­mu­ni­ty join­ing orga­ni­za­tions like the FBI? Going into gov­ern­ment. Going into pol­i­cy. Having their voic­es heard. They nev­er would have con­sid­ered that before. It would have been one of those tra­di­tion­al tracks. But this can poten­tial­ly be incred­i­bly pow­er­ful, incred­i­bly moti­vat­ing. So it’s not just the FBI that are part the con­ver­sa­tions at the local lev­el, but also at the gov­ern­men­tal lev­el. And I would love for a future where you have one of those bio­hack­ers take my place. Have a seat at the table. Have a seat at the UN. And have that conversation.

So it real­ly is going to be impor­tant that there are dif­fer­ent lev­els of defi­ance. I con­sid­er myself to be a big aber­ra­tion, but hope­ful­ly in a good way. But how do you spur this? It can’t stop here. It must­n’t stop here, because as I said, this is the age of biotech­nol­o­gy. And we have a win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty to get it done right. So, how do we expand upon this? And again, with that I’ll go ahead and close. But thank you so much for this oppor­tu­ni­ty, because at the time it just seemed like a hare-brained idea. But I did­n’t real­ize it would have such a pow­er­ful impact on not only one sec­tor but on com­mu­ni­ties. So with that, thank you very much everybody.

Farai Chideya: Thank you, Ed. Really appre­ci­ate it. So thanks again to Ed for show­ing real­ly unusu­al mod­els of col­lab­o­ra­tion. And next up we have one of the MIT Media Lab Directors Fellows, Adam Foss. He’s going to be talk­ing about jus­tice in the judi­cia­ry. He’s a for­mer Assistant District Attorney in the juve­nile divi­sion of Suffolk County’s DA’s office. And he’s the co founder of Prosecutor Impact. It’s a non­prof­it that’s devel­op­ing train­ing and cur­ric­u­la for pros­e­cu­tors to reframe their roles in the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

Further Reference

Biohacking and the FBI Ed You at the Defiance Conference,” notes by J. Nathan Matias at the MIT Center for Civic Media blog

Defiance video archive