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Laramie Movie Scope: Zero Days

The worm is loose

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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November 13, 2016 -- This documentary film about a cyber warfare attack against Iran argues that the attack has legitimized unlimited cyber warfare in the eyes of certain countries. This film argues that cyber warfare treaties, similar to nuclear arms treaties, are needed to contain future cyber threats.

The November 8, 2016 U.S. presidential election was impacted by a kind of cyber warfare conducted by Russia with the aid of Wikileaks. This attack targeted the Democratic National Committee and was specifically aimed against the Clinton campaign. Fake news stories were also used to influence the election. Most computer experts agree on this. If the argument in the film “Zero Days” is correct, then the U.S. may have inadvertently invited this attack by using the Stuxnet malicious computer worm, a “cyberweapon” against a Russian ally, Iran.

While the United States has never publicly admitted deploying the Stuxnet worm against Iran's nuclear weapons facilities, the lid was blown off this cyber attack in 2012 by the New York Times, with the aid of some detective work by computer security experts. Reporter David Sanger, who appears often in the film, said cyber warfare was expanded by the Obama Administration. It had begun during the Bush administration which preceded it.

How this top secret cyberweapon was discovered, analyzed and unmasked is a detective story that makes up about half the film. The rest has to do with why Stuxnet was developed and deployed in the first place, the international response to it, and the possible future implications of its use.

The Stuxnet worm, part of what was called operation “Olympic Games,” is designed to take over Siemens supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. SCADA controls are found in numerous industrial systems around the world, such as electric power plants and manufacturing operations. Stuxnet was modified to both spy on and subvert five Iranian organizations. The software, among other things, destroyed uranium enrichment centrifuges by taking over controllers, which changed their rate of spin. Stuxnet was also made to mask its operation by tricking the Iranian control and monitoring systems, and to hide its tracks.

Sanger says in the film that President Obama was aware of the fact that releasing the Stuxnet worm, which caused extensive physical damage to nuclear facilities in Iran, might be used as a justification by other nations to make cyber attacks against the U.S. Knowing that the U.S. is extremely vulnerable to cyber attacks, Obama went ahead with the cyber attacks anyway.

Obama is a cautious man. Why would he authorize the release of such a powerful, versatile, revolutionary cyberweapon that can be modified to cause great damage to the United States by its enemies? According to the film, the answer lies in the deadly rivalry between Israel and Iran.

Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu was so afraid of Iran developing nuclear weapons that the U.S. feared he would start a war with Iran. The film argues that the joint cyber attack by the U.S. and Israel against Iran was meant to appease Netanyahu and thereby prevent conventional, or maybe even nuclear war (according to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, Israel has some 200 nuclear weapons).

Further, the film argues that pressure from Netanyahu led to Israel (Israel's cyber spy division is known as Unit 8200) unilaterally modifying Stuxnet, so that it could spread more easily, this led to the spread of Stuxnet, which had not spread, and had not been detected up to that point, to computers all over the world. The spread of the virus led to its discovery by computer security experts. Soon after, Stuxnet was traced back to the U.S. and Israel. The genie was out of the lamp.

This leads us back to the November 8 election, and to the nuclear pact signed last year by the U.S. and Iran. That pact was bitterly opposed by Netanyahu, who got directly involved in American domestic politics by speaking directly to the U.S. Congress against the deal. In the election, Hillary Clinton supported the agreement, but Donald Trump opposes it.

Netanyahu's preference for Donald Trump over Clinton, combined with his alleged influence over Unit 8200, raises the uncomfortable question of possible Israeli cyber spy involvement in this election. Israel does conduct spy operations in the U.S. and some hackers are known to have played a role in helping to elect Trump.

It would be ironic if President Obama's decision to attack Iran with Stuxnet ended up deleting his own presidential legacy. Obama supported Clinton, who, in turn pledged to continue many of Obama's policies. President Elect Donald Trump has pledged to undo much of what Obama has done as president.

The film argues there can be no effective public debate about this danger, and there will be no effective cyber warfare treaties, until some of the veil of secrecy is lifted. Right now, the U.S. government refuses to talk about Stuxnet or its cyber warfare policies. A good deal of what is known is due to revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Alex Gibney (“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”) the film's director, directly expresses his frustration with the refusal of U.S. government officials to discuss its cyber warfare operations.

Gibney goes about as far as he possibly can to expose what is going on, even using an actress, Joanne Tucker (“Listen Up Philip”) as a kind of “cyber character” in the film, to say what several secret government whistleblowers have anonymously revealed about cyber warfare. This is clearly a very complex issue. Gibney makes a convincing argument that it is time for this to be brought out into the open so it can be fully examined and discussed. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2016 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)