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Documentary doubles as thriller
IF the doomsday scenario in Alex Gibney's cyber warfare documentary Zero Days is to be believed - and he certainly makes a convincing, well-researched case for it - then we're already a world at war, and we don't even know it. Given the number of hack-attacks that have been inflicted on governments, financial institutions and private individuals in recent times (did Vladimir Putin really conspire to put Donald Trump in the Oval Office?), the cyber espionage threat is pervasive, and it is irreversible.
Zero Days zeroes in on the mysterious case of Stuxnet, a sophisticated malware that was implanted in the computer systems at an Iranian nuclear facility, causing it to suffer crippling setbacks without realising that it had been the target of state-sponsored terrorism.
This, together with the fact that Iranian scientists were assassinated - likely in an effort to further destabilise the country's nuclear capability - puts the film firmly in political thriller territory (of the non-fiction kind).
No one in the US government has actually acknowledged the existence of Stuxnet - the filmmakers encounter multiple no-comment-and-don't-quote-me-on-that responses - but Gibney does get several sources to open up, from Internet analysts and intelligence officials to political insiders and investigative journalists. He even uses an actress to play a whistle-blower inside the NSA (National Security Agency): she is actually a composite of multiple sources who couldn't appear on camera.
Gibney uses 3-D graphics, digital illustrations and re-enactments to render a highly complex issue intelligible to the average filmgoer and for the most part, he succeeds. The film alleges that US and Israeli agencies conspired to release the Stuxnet malware, internally code-named "Olympic Games", and hoped to get away without ever being detected.
The problem is that when Israel secretly changed the malware's code for its own purposes, the silent weapon was discovered, first by a software detective in Belarus in 2010 and then by the rest of the cyber universe - including the Iranians, who promptly developed their own cyber-attack team to hit US-owned targets. The irony, of course, is that their own weapon was used against them. "We are the most vulnerable nation on earth to cyber-attacks," says David Sanger, the New York Times journalist who first exposed Stuxnet.
The film also reveals the presence of an even-bigger threat against Iran, code-named Nitro Zeus and capable of wreaking havoc. It's a disturbing picture of a cyber weapon developed for offensive purposes, way beyond mere hacking.
One source explains that a virus used to cause physical damage (on pipelines, rail systems and power generators, for instance) and inflict casualties in the process could just as easily be turned against the US.
Zero Days raises the very real possibility that the world could be on the verge of a silent but deadly war waged by armies of computer warriors in secure facilities somewhere near you. The film points the finger of blame at successive American governments for maintaining a veil of secrecy while conducting covert operations in cyberspace.
Still, the film does argue for some sort of multi-lateral cyber treaty to be in place, before it's too late. Now, what are the chances of that happening anytime soon?