A documentary that sounds the alarm about the world of cyberwarfare, –the weaponizing of the Internet,– “Zero Days” (2016) is our nightmare.
Alex Gibney’s film tells the story of Stuxnet, the cyber espionage attack on an Iranian nuclear facility in 2010 . A piece of self-replicating computer malware that the NSA and Mossad unleashed together, Stuxnet destroyed an Iranian nuclear facility’s centrifuges. Unintended consequences followed: collateral damage to massive computer systems outside of Iran, some of which belonged to US and Israeli allies. This clandestine mission gone awry opened the specter of the computer-as-weapon.
Frightening in its implications –for our utilities, medical systems, transportation systems, financial databases, everything that is computerized– “Zero Days” is a journey into the bowels of Stuxnet malware. Replicating with no endpoint until it reaches its target, Stuxnet had immediate and multiple paths for destroying the centrifuges essential to Iranian nuclear capabilities. The movie title “Zero Days” refers to the immediate activation of the malware. Once launched there is no way to call it back, not unlike a missile launch. The power of Stuxnet is beautifully envisioned, graphically and organically, as if it were a living, breathing organism.
The two heroes in “Zero Days” are the two Symantec (anti-virus) engineers who discover that Stuxnet malware is sophisticatedly worming its way inside Microsoft Word code. The target is the programmable logic controllers that direct equipment instrumental in operating Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. Similar controllers are used in a myriad of industrial facilities worldwide.
Like a riveting James Bond thriller, the viewer sees an unnamed, pixellated female disguised so that the covert NSA operation can be discussed publicly and candidly.What is particularly frightening is that none of these weaponized missions are fully under the control of any single government.What can be done by the US and Israel in Stuxnet can be done by others in retaliation.
This two-hour documentary is a warning to all of us of the lethal, unsettling potential of cyberwarfare. Our necessary dependence on computers has left the planet vulnerable to countless manipulations—both intentional and accidental. The result is a world that is more perplexing and dangerous than most of us think and few truly understand.
This is a doomsday scenario–if we don’t begin to understand the power of the computer as weapon. “Zero Days” is a prescient warning of things to come, a plea to be aware, to become familiar with our new reality. Otherwise, we will just blunder our way into the future waiting to be harmed by unseen powers.