One session at the conference asked the assembled group to think about possible worst-case scenarios. In one example, a biohacker called “Deb” was sneaking castor beans into the lab, and engaging in aggressive, politically-charged discussions with lab members. “How do you respond in this situation,” Kate Carley, another charming FBI officer, asked the biohacker crowd. “Do you report the incident?” Regardless of what we thought, the FBI’s answer is a resounding yes. Her next slide showed Deb leaving the community lab to secretly work at home, before being arrested for experimenting with human pathogens and toxins. Even worse – for us at least – the fictitious slide showed newspaper stories where Deb was described as being part of the biohacker community.
These slides were clearly designed to show the most extreme examples and to drive home the FBI’s point. When asked whether a real “Deb” had ever been investigated, arrested, or even heard of, the FBI’s Head had to admit: “No.”
The idea that well-meaning biohackers could help the FBI by reporting any suspicious activities, has many in the field worried, particularly those outside of the US. “[It] reminds me of the Stasis's methods,” says Rudiger Trojok, one of Germany's most active biohackers, comparing the policy to the infamous spying network that operated in East Germany between 1950 and 1990. “Biohacking is not the FBI's, it's a civilian business.”
Of course no one in the biohacking community wants to see any rogue biopunks creating headlines that would bring the entire community into disrepute. To try to counteract this, the DIYbio community is running a survey that it hopes will dispel any misconceptions about its motives. The German biohackers we got to know, such as Trojok from Freiburg and Lisa Thalheim of Berlin, have even started to draft rules for what they call “biohacking ethics”. Their code of conduct would include moratoria on certain kinds of experiments, a registration system and mutual voluntary inspections of labs by biohackers.
But even this concerns some practitioners, who worry that a field that has flourished precisely because it is informal and unregulated, will be stifled. When Trojok and Thalheim presented their ideas about a “web of trust” at a meeting at the London School of Economics in 2011 some felt it was too restrictive. Instead, people like Jason Bobe from the Personal Genomes Project at Harvard University, favours a much more liberal approach, with general Hippocratic rules like “do no harm” at its core.
Together with Todd Kuiken from the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, Bobe has just launched an initiative called “Ask a Biosafety Expert” that, in their view, best meets the hobbyist’s needs. The idea is that biohackers from all over the world can go to the diybio.org website anonymously and submit any questions, from how to clean things up to aspects of the safety of experiments. Within a day or so they’d receive an answer from a biosafety expert. This way, according to Kuiken, people could operate in a safe manner, relying on personal responsibility rather than control.
Of course, nobody knows if a stick or a carrot is the right tool as we enter the age of personal biotech. But whoever is given the task of devising rules will have to consider the virtues of having molecular biology among the masses – can personal biotech improve society, will it lead to valuable inventions and innovations, will it be a democratising force, will it help distribute wealth, economic and intellectual power more widely?