The ‘Little Boy’ of Cyberspace
Academy Award winner Alex Gibney on how cyber weapons like Stuxnet are changing the future of war -- and why Washington isn't prepared for the fallout.
During his landmark visit last month to Hiroshima, Japan, President Barack Obama declared that “technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us.”
Though he was reflecting on nuclear weapons and presenting a vision for a more peaceful future — “a future in which Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare but as the start of our own moral awakening” — Obama’s reflections on institutions’ sluggish response to technological change could serve as a useful coda to documentarian Alex Gibney’s new film, Zero Days.
The film chronicles the dawn of a new kind of warfare, in cyberspace, and explores how the United States pioneered it with Stuxnet, which will likely join “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, in the history books as a weapon that changed the character of war.
For all its wizardry — and there is a great deal — in telling a visually captivating story about computer code, Gibney’s new film is also a plea for transparency in the U.S. government’s growing arsenal of digital weapons, and how they would use them in a time of war. The film includes a rather remarkable montage of current and former government officials with knowledge of the Stuxnet worm refusing to comment on a weapon that has huge implications for the future of war.
Journalists and researchers who have tried to learn about America’s military and intelligence capabilities in cyberspace are familiar with this staggering secrecy. Though anonymous government officials have leaked to the media that Stuxnet was a joint U.S.-Israeli operation, Washington still formally refuses to acknowledge that it was behind the first example of a digital weapon causing physical damage. The White House on Friday declined to comment on the film and its revelations.
Such reticence to take responsibility for an act of war deeply disturbs Gibney. “Nobody said after Hiroshima and Nagasaki: ‘What bombs?'” he told Foreign Policy in an interview.
Gibney won an Oscar in 2008 for Taxi to the Dark Side, about American interrogation and detention practices in Afghanistan, and directed the combative 2015 documentary about Scientology, Going Clear. Asked whether he saw any parallels between the secretive church and America’s closed community of digital spies and soldiers, Gibney said they are both “very much in the business of sculpting the narrative.”
Authorized first by the Bush administration and continued by Obama, Stuxnet targeted Iranian nuclear enrichment by infiltrating the computers controlling the high-speed centrifuges that enrich uranium and are a key step in producing a nuclear warhead. By sabotaging the speed at which the centrifuges ran, Stuxnet destroyed many of the fragile machines, possibly setting back Iran’s nuclear program.
Gibney’s film is one part detective story and relies heavily on interviews with Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu, the Symantec researchers who did much of the early work in trying to understand Stuxnet’s function after it escaped onto the open internet. In trying to humanize a story about ones and zeros, Gibney turned to nerd sleuths Chien and O’Murchu to explain just what the virus was intended to accomplish. Their excitement and despair in trying to learn Stuxnet’s secrets provides the film with much of its emotional core.
As Chien and O’Murchu chronicle their journey through Stuxnet’s complex structure — it’s probably the most advanced computer virus ever seen — sequences of its actual code speeds along the screen — in an aesthetic that recalls The Matrix.
The film credibly makes the case that the science-fiction future of warfare has arrived. In reporting the film, Gibney and co-producer Javier Botero talked to a variety of anonymous sources within the U.S. intelligence and military establishments and then combined those interviews into a composite character, a digitally rendered actress who speaks to the audience as if she were being interviewed.
It’s a clever trick for a filmmaker working with sources terrified of being prosecuted — or being stripped of their security clearances and losing the prospect of lucrative private sector jobs. The typical approach to anonymous sources in a documentary film relies on a heavily backlit interview with a subject whose voice has been digitally altered. It’s a dated approach that can be confusing when dealing with multiple subjects.
The composite digital character also serves Gibney’s argument about transparency. “The entire conceit of it was a comment on this over-obsession of secrecy,” Gibney said.
The Obama administration has prosecuted a record number of government employees under the Espionage Act for speaking to the media, which has had a chilling effect on the work of reporters trying to bring classified information into the open. Hiding his sources behind this digital veil shows “the extreme lengths that we’ve been pushed to tell the story,” Gibney said.
The use of the composite character has its problems. It is impossible to evaluate the origin of the information Gibney’s sources provide, and requires the viewer to put an enormous amount of trust in the filmmaker. Crucially for the film’s integrity, Gibney reveals at the film’s end that the source is a composite.
That “source” provides what is the film’s most gripping revelation: a far more extensive — and mind-bending — plan than Stuxnet for cyberwar against Iran.
As Obama sought a rapid means for striking Tehran, his generals and spies came back with a plan dubbed “Nitro Zeus.” It envisioned American operatives infiltrating Iranian computer networks to disable parts of the Iranian power grid, take down its air defenses, and strike its communications systems. The plan deployed thousands of U.S. personnel to penetrate Iranian networks and install the computer code necessary to carry out the attack. Nitro Zeus presented Obama with “a way to turn off critical elements of the Iranian infrastructure without firing a shot,” the New York Times reported.
The use of such weapons in conflicts between states will only increase in the 21st century. Late last year, hackers shut down power in a section of western Ukraine, leading Kiev to accuse Moscow of mounting a cyberattack. In recent months, U.S. officials have described dropping “cyber bombs” on Islamic State operatives in Syria.
But Gibney persuasively makes the case that these weapons and their implications remain poorly understood. Taking down a power grid through hacking is far easier than bringing it back, and the knock-on effects of such an attack are difficult to predict before it takes place.
Moreover, the use of such weapons exists in a legal gray area. “Precisely how the law of war applies to cyber operations is not well-settled, and aspects of the law in this area are likely to continue to develop, especially as new cyber capabilities are developed and States determine their views in response to such developments,” according to the most recent version of the Pentagon’s law of war manual, published in June 2015.
Nonetheless, cyber war is here to stay — it’s simply too attractive a tool of statecraft. At the tail end of the President George W. Bush’s second term, Iran ramped up its nuclear program. But bogged down in two wars and dogged by his false allegations of Iraqi WMD development, Bush had few tools with which to counter Tehran. Meanwhile in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu grew livid at American inaction and threatened to strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Had he done so, the operation would all but certainly have dragged the United States into war with Iran.
But instead, and by joining with Israel to attack Iran with Stuxnet, the United States reassured its ally and perhaps even headed off outright war.
Gibney’s film effectively weaves together these political and technological threads to show how scientific advances have remade war in the 21st century. This transformation has occurred, Gibney argues, without equivalent progress in human institutions, to borrow a phrase from Obama, the man who has overseen the American revolution in cyberwar.
Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures