Zero Days, the newest offering from prolific director Alex Gibney, advertises itself as a documentary thriller -- a real-life WarGames complete with intrigue, assassinations and high-stakes computer hacking. Centered on Stuxnet, a top-secret cyberweapon developed by the U.S. and Israeli governments to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, the film tells the story of how Stuxnet “went viral” in the truest, least “funny cat video” kind of way.
Gibney’s film makes a strong argument for why we as an American public should care about covert cyberattacks on foreign nations. But the journey to that point -- told through talking heads and ominous technical visualizations -- is a disjointed and strident one that may leave viewers feeling paralyzed, if not frantically typing “How do I get off the grid?” into their nearest search engines.
The malicious (and still classified) code’s nascent days began in 2006, when then-President George W. Bush authorized a project to remotely and anonymously sabotage Natanz, Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility, with the goal of delaying the nation’s ability to build nuclear weapons. In collaboration with Israel’s cyber unit, the National Security Agency wormed the earliest versions of Stuxnet inside Natanz in 2008.
The code specifically targeted the facility’s centrifuges, causing the spinning cylinders to self-destruct while sending “all good” reports to the facility’s control computers. After successful attacks at the end of Bush's presidency, Obama reauthorized the program when he entered office. Stuxnet continued to wreak maddening havoc on Natanz. Nuclear scientists and engineers were fired. Hundreds of centrifuges were taken out of commission. No one could determine what was going wrong.
Then, in 2010, Stuxnet broke loose from Natanz, infecting computers around the world without even a download or a click (a hacking capability termed “zero-day” for the amount of notice one receives before a system succumbs). The top-secret cyberweapon became the object of intense fascination for security analysts like Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu of Symantec Research Labs, who guide the film through the tricky, often technical facets of the project.
Chien and O’Murchu are also the ones to give the code its popular name. In my opinion, Stuxnet is uncomfortably close to Skynet (Terminator’s self-aware and humanity-hunting artificial intelligence). Inside U.S. security forces, it was known by the sporty moniker of “Olympic Games."
In Zero Days, the explainer portions of the documentary are accompanied by Hackers and Matrix-esque visualizations of nefarious code. Those letters and numbers could be Stuxnet, or complete nonsense; it’s impossible for the untrained eye to tell. Similarly dramatic, yet visually ambiguous images demonstrate Stuxnet’s destructive power. A balloon over-inflates and explodes -- by my count -- seven times in slow motion. Gibney then cuts to footage of an expanding mushroom cloud, a shape of convenient similarity.
The parallels between cyberwarfare and nuclear warfare come to the fore in the documentary’s final chapter. The advent of nuclear weapons during the Cold War sparked vigorous national debates, the film’s talking heads argue. Civilian involvement in that conversation led U.S. and Soviet governments to deeply consider the power they wielded and ultimately institute systems to regulate it. We can’t have this same discussion about cyberweapons today because the entire program is “hideously overclassified,” says former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden.
Ultimately, the most terrifying part of Zero Days isn’t the list of hypothetical disasters put forward, it’s the fact that our current vulnerability was essentially created by our own government. Once Iran learned their scientists weren’t failing them, and that there really was a secret American plot to undermine Iran's nuclear program, they created their own cyberwarfare division, launching attacks of their own. Here Gibney cuts to still images of Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin looking intently at computer screens, leaving us to imagine the innumerable threats to civilian infrastructure, communication networks and economic systems that are all fair game in the dark and secretive world of Zero Days.
Zero Days opens Friday, July 8 at Landmark Embarcadero in San Francisco, Landmark Shattuck in Berkeley and Camera 3 in San Jose.