DNC Hack Could Make ‘Zero Days’ the Year’s Most Prescient Film

Timing isn’t everything with documentaries, but it helps. Alex Gibney’s Zero Days is a case in point. In any other year, this white-knuckle nonfiction thriller about Stuxnet and the shadowy landscape of cyberwarfare would have made for gripping viewing. But being released just weeks before the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Gibney’s film also provides a prescient warning for the new world of conflict that we are blundering into without so much as a flashlight.

To clarify, Zero Days does not directly relate to the kind of offensive cyber operation that is alleged to have happened with the DNC. However, in his deep-undercover, whistleblower-thick narrative, Gibney does paint a picture of the types of motives and capabilities that directly relate to what is potentially happening now. It serves as a kind of road map for the new geopolitical battleground that many of us might have just gotten a glimpse of in this sweltering summer of unease.

On July 22, Wikileaks published 20,000 emails that had been taken from the DNC’s servers. One’s opinion of how explosive these leaks were probably depends on your level of knowledge of or experience with the highly Machiavellian world of political operatives and electioneering. But regardless, a media firestorm erupted, in large part due to charges that the DNC favored Hillary Clinton as a candidate over Bernie Sanders, and some very not-for-public-consumption email exchanges about Bernie Sanders’s religious beliefs. The results of this are well-known. Powerful DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz stepped down just days later, and the carefully orchestrated start to the Democratic convention was partially obscured by controversy.

What does this have to do with cyberwarfare? As of now, a number of security experts believe that the sophisticated hack was not only sponsored by Russian intelligence operatives at the behest of the Kremlin but done so deliberately to sabotage the Clinton campaign in order to benefit Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.

One analyst told the security publication Defense One:

This has all the hallmarks of tradecraft. The only rationale to release such data … was to empower one candidate against another. The Cold War is alive and well…

At a time when the national security stories that get play usually the terrorist attacks of one stateless group or another, it’s good to remember that the world is still made up of nation-states. They all have armies, spies, and some very specific ideas about what’s best for them and how to bring those things to fruition.

Zero Days is a bracing reminder that that world of geopolitical struggle never went away after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It simply mutated. Using a thicket of background research and experts drawn from multiple levels of the Western defense establishment, Gibney tells how American and Israeli agencies from the CIA and NSA to the Mossad apparently collaborated on a top-secret campaign to sabotage the Iranian nuclear research program.

Codenamed “Olympic Games,” the campaign was potentially linked to some fieldwork, such as the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists. But its core was a virus of previously unseen sophistication. Called Stuxnet by the security experts who later discovered it, the virus was designed to worm its way inside the Iranian nuclear research facility at Natanz and then instruct the facility’s centrifuges to essentially destroy themselves.

In a sense, the virus doesn’t sound like much. The damage was probably not catastrophic; more centrifuges could always be bought. But it was the implications of what Stuxnet could do that makes it such an astounding leap forward in offensive cyberwarfare. Firstly, it probably had to be introduced to the system by a human spy, since the facility’s computers were “air gapped,” meaning they weren’t connected to any outside networks. Also, unlike just about every other known virus of the kind, Stuxnet was designed to operate independently. This made it highly malleable and effective for operations in a closed target. But it also meant that once Stuxnet got out into the world, as viruses tend to do, there wasn’t much that could stop it.

Gibney breaks some new investigative ground in Zero Days, particularly near the end of the film, where a collection of NSA whistleblowers who worked on Stuxnet tell their stories of life on the frontlines of the new worldwide cyberwar. But even though most of the facts Gibney lays out have already been reported elsewhere, he weaves it together into a cohesive, dramatic narrative. Unlike most stories of modern-day espionage, it relies more on diligent research than dark innuendo.

That’s not to say that Zero Days isn’t frightening. It is actually some of the most chilling work that Gibney has ever done, particularly once he starts digging into the wider implications of the Pandora’s Box that Olympic Games helped open. The film argues that by launching an offensive cyber campaign at a nation where a state of war did not exist, Olympic Games was creating a precedent that could all too easily come back to haunt those who launched it. Iran did actually later launch a viral counterattack, targeting American banks.

This isn’t necessarily surprising; new advances in warfare tend to be blurted out into the world before their ramifications are fully understood. As one of Gibney’s interviewees points out, somewhat incredibly it the United States didn’t truly begin thinking about or codifying the rules of engagement for its nuclear arsenal until the 1960s.

Once a computer virus has been weaponized by a nation-state and put into play as an offensive weapon, that opens up an entirely new threat landscape for an already deluged security apparatus to deal with. As Zero Days notes, the legacy of Stuxnet — whose code is now loose and potentially usable by other groups — is that a hostile nation could target the very adaptable virus at elements of American infrastructure and seriously damage or even destroy them. This wouldn’t necessarily be limited to crashing a few centrifuges, it could be as large as destroying an entire section of the power grid or poisoning water supplies.

After Hiroshima, the human race had to live forever with the possibility of a nuclear war. Once the Rubicon has been crossed, it’s hard to go back. Weapons are never uninvented.

Practically none of the well-placed sources Gibney includes in his roster of experts would go on the record as even admitting that Stuxnet or Olympic Games existed. Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden practically winks at Gibney, saying that he didn’t know anything about it, but “if I did, we wouldn’t talk about it anyway.” Clearly, it is somewhat difficult to have a national conversation about something that nobody will admit exists in the first place.

But the future is likely already here, as the hack of the DNC shows. Like many such stories in this sphere, little will ever likely be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. But the fact that all the pieces are in place, from Vladimir Putin’s belief that Clinton fomented protests in Moscow to Russia’s acknowledged technical ability to carry out such attacks, means it’s possible that a foreign nation used a cyberattack to try and influence an American presidential election.

After seeing Zero Days, it’s difficult to argue that such a scenario is unthinkable.

Title: Zero Days
Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Alex Gibney
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
Year of release: 2016
Rating: PG-13
Web site: http://www.zerodaysfilm.com/