Alex Gibney’s latest documentary film covers the phenomenon surrounding the Stuxnet computer virus and the development of the malware software known as “Olympic Games“. The Stuxnet worm, a groundbreaking virus jointly created by the US and Israel, has the power to cripple nuclear plants and more.
Gibney’s film, Zero Days (2016), documents several aspects of this particular cyberweapon: from how the virus got into the relevant networks, to what it actually did when it got there, to how it was discovered (and whose fault that was) and the fact that no one in the United States or Israel has ever acknowledged its existence.
Gibney has concluded that the sovereign nations of this pale blue dot had better work hard on some sort of cyber-nonproliferation treaty if we want to make it much further into this new century. “The danger is that it seems innocent,” Gibney said after a screening in New York. “Command and control machinery were never intended to be integrated with the internet in such a way,” he said, referring to the fact that the Stuxnet worm didn’t just clog up a bunch of email accounts, it caused actual machinery to spin out of control until they were destroyed. Part of his research involved talking to agency moles (whose identity the film weaves into one composite character) and Zero Days explains how the US has another cyberweapon ready to launch at Iran called Nitro Zeus that would essentially knock out all civic infrastructure. That isn’t just cable television, it’s hospitals and transport.
Gibney is eager to show how the US and Israel are mostly to blame for this. “Stuxnet was the first cyberweapon to cross the boundary from the cyber realm to physical realm. Iran hadn’t even contemplated the possibility. At first, their engineers thought they had screwed up.”
According to Zero Days, the Bush administration agreed to create Stuxnet as a form of Israeli appeasement. Anonymous US officials claimed the worm was developed to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program with what would seem like a long series of unfortunate accidents. Without some sort of programme, the Netanyahu administration was likely to bomb the nuclear facility at Natanz. “Obama inherited the programme and, as with drones, cranked it up,” Gibney said.
Like nuclear weapons, which were developed by the United States but soon spread to allies and enemies, the development and deployment of cyberweapons are a global risk to all societies. It is shocking that they were developed to destroy facilities producing nuclear material since they are ultimately just as dangerous as nuclear weapons. Gibney’s film shine an important light on the overreach of American and Israeli cyber warfare against external nations.
The revelations of Zero Days add to the revelations provided by Edward Snowden. Snowden leaked documents that revealed previously unknown details of a global surveillance apparatus run by the United States’ NSA in close cooperation with three of its Five Eyes partners: Australia (ASD), the United Kingdom (GCHQ), and Canada (CSEC). It was revealed that the NSA was harvesting millions of email and instant messaging contact lists, searching email content, tracking and mapping the location of cell phones, undermining attempts at encryption via Bullrun and that the agency was using cookies to “piggyback” on the same tools used by internet advertisers “to pinpoint targets for government hacking and to bolster surveillance.”
These secret cyberweapons programs and other forms of digital warfare, as revealed by Snowden, point to a dangerous trend by incredibly powerful nations to target not only perceived enemies but all people, foreign and domestic. These weapons have incredible power to destroy physical infrastructure which hold together countries. Continued development and deployment by Western powers raises the risk that all military powers will follow suit and develop their own versions, as we’ve seen with nuclear weapons. It is a risk too high and should be stopped immediately.