Alex Gibneys new documentary argues that cyber-attacks are the next big thing in war, offering not just the ability to spy, but to launch a complete offensive
The title of Alex Gibneys new documentary about cyberwarfare has something apocalyptic about it: a digital version of the Book Of Revelations, perhaps. Its actually a technical term relating to a sophisticated piece of weapons-grade malware developed in the last decade by the US and Israeli security services: it can begin to replicate itself immediately on being implanted. Analysts nicknamed it Stuxnet, though the intelligence officers themselves gave their baby the creepy codename Olympic Games.
In 2010, the Americans succeeded in installing this device at Natanz, an Iranian nuclear plant, disrupting the refinement process and causing centrifuges to spin out of control. At the time, the Iranian government irritably dismissed this as petty vandalism, but there is no doubt that for a while Stuxnet made Irans nuclear technicians look as clueless as Homer Simpson at the Springfield power plant, unable to work out what was going on.
But the Iranians had cyberwarriors on their own payroll and hit back with malware attacks on Bank of America, among other American institutions. And the malware itself grew like a toxic worm, uncontrolled, infecting other systems, all over the world.
As one interviewee puts it in Gibneys film, there is a whiff of August 1945 about the Natanz attack the first chapter in a new history of warfare.
Taking his cue from a pioneering investigation from David Sanger of the New York Times and documents disclosed by Edward Snowden, Gibney argues in his film that cyber-attacks are the next big thing in war, and despite official denials, it is not just a matter of hacking or spying but complete offensive capability and as in nuclear war, the experts emphasise the American football distinctions between defence and offence. And Barack Obama has secretly given himself the power to authorise attacks designed to destroy computer systems governing the enemys telecoms, traffic, electricity and water supply while of course cultivating a 24/7 paranoia about the enemys growing capability to do the same to us.
Of course, people who remember the hysteria about the millennium bug at the end of the last century, and the way that was supposedly going to wipe out bank accounts in 2000, may be sceptical about the real and present danger that this constitutes as an accidental problem. Despite the film laying some emphasis on the fact that Olympic Games continued to replicate without anyone realising, there is no hint yet that we could be in for an argument with an inanimate computer on the subject of opening the pod bay doors.
What Zero Days does is plausibly make the case that cyber-aggression of nation states is a new form of dangerous geopolitical dysfunction. Unlike nuclear or chemical weapons, which have some kind of internationally enforceable inspection arrangements and balances of power, cyberweapons are deniable and denied, protected by a new kind of macho-geekery and silence. Of course, the idea of declaring war is antique, a relic from the era of Pearl Harbor. But cyberwarfare is an even deeper, more sinister kind of undeclared aggression, a kind of digital warm war, with huge banks of servers thrumming endlessly as they promote continuous pre-emptive attacks and intelligence raids.
Perhaps without entirely intending to, Gibney makes his interviewees from US intelligence look bad. They are defensive, reticent, torn between the need to give a big no comment and to claim that the questionably effective Iranian cyber-sabotage now public knowledge was in fact a big win for the US. They also have a sore-loser habit of blaming their partner: Israel. An actor playing a fictional composite interviewee (testimony collated from off the record contributors) attacks the Israelis as crude and hot-headed, going in too aggressively against Iran with Olympic Games against American wishes. Maybe. Or maybe the US handled it badly and finds it convenient to trash Israel in the light of a new nuclear concord with Iran.
Zero Days is an intriguing, disturbing watch. And to return to the title, there is another echo of Lucy Walkers nuclear-weapons documentary Countdown to Zero. We need some kind of cyber-nonproliferation treaty.