Zero Days [2016] – America Opens Yet Another Pandora’s Box

Zero Days

Documentary film-maker and producer Alex Gibney’s works are at their best when it comes from a place of worry, bafflement and righetous fury. From chronicling the ‘Enron’ corporate disaster to exposing the devious designs of ‘Scientology’, Gibney’s documentaries has introduced fresh perspective to most-talked about incidents and brings out hard truths about unknown incidents. Aesthetically his documentaries don’t stay in our mind for an ever-lasting time-period, although the cornucopia of information he bestows, instigates a lot of debate on the public forum. And unlike Michael Moore, Gibney always stays behind the camera, only focusing on the urgency of message that needs to be conveyed. With his recent documentary “Zero Days” (2016), which is a part spy thriller and part cautionary tale, the film-maker studies the looming threat of global cyber warfare. “Zero Days” is the kind of documentary that makes you paranoid when you wade through the digital realm, sharing and searching for information, leaving your digital footprint. Even though, I am not a nuclear scientist or any important personality, the knowledge of how viruses are designed by nation-states to monitor a enemy nation’s citizens is something totally alarming (this might not be the right place to say, but still I’d like to say that I have nothing but unbridled contempt for hypocritical American government and its foreign policies).

In the documentary’s opening montage, we see that Gibney has lined-up important men of high-ranking intelligence agencies like CIA, NSA, and Mossad. But, they all remain tight-lipped and cautious when the word ‘Stuxnet’ is pronounced. It is ‘hideously over-classified’ says former CIA and NSA Chief Michael Hayden. All these intelligence agency men not only deny to debate on the already-present cyber warfare, they don’t even acknowledge the existence of a cyber weapon like ‘Stuxnet’. What is Stuxnet? Gibney introduces two charming anti-virus experts, Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu to explain what this flawlessly crafted piece of code or virus would do to its targets. The duo after spending lot of sleepless nights found out that Stuxnet virus is specifically designed to target Siemens devices, the kind that is used to control centrifuges in nuclear energy plants. At the time, when the anti-virus guys encountered the malicious malware, it is believed to have hailed from Belarus and started to pop-up in computers all over the world, especially within US. But, before zeroing-in on the place of origination of this malware, its target was first found: Natanz nuclear plant in Iran.

Documentary's composite NSA whistleblower

Documentary’s composite NSA whistle-blower

In 2006, Iranian government secretly commenced the construction of Natanz nuclear plant, deceiving the outside world that it is a desert irrigation facility. Within the next few years, they built state-of-the-art uranium-processing centrifuges to produce low-enriched uranium. Although the nuclear plant was keenly watched by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the American and Israeli intelligence agencies were unnerved by the prospect of Iran possessing a nuclear program. Around 2010, the centrifuges at Natanz, under mysterious circumstances started to implode and malfunction. Iranian government fired scientist and engineers for the unsolvable mechanical program, but at that time they didn’t know about ‘Stuxnet’, which had craftily entered into plant’s computers to create the unaccountable ruckus. While Intelligence agents, Gibney has conjured up for this documentary talk in vague terms, it is New York Times’ David Sagner and a digitally disguised secret informant (from NSA) lucidly convey the origin of Stuxnet and how it came back to attack its creator.

Stuxnet is alleged to have been authorized by former President Bush as an effort to calm Israel’s uncontrollable desire to drop bomb at Iran’s budding nuclear facilities. The hack into Natanz plant took place under Obama’s authorization and budget for secret, offensive cyber weapons was elevated to higher levels. Stuxnet, jointly created by NSA and Unit 8200 (Israel’s cyber spy agency), after wreaking havoc in Iran, started to spread around the world and was detected as well as fully dissected by anti-virus experts in private sector. Even though the existence of malware became public knowledge and all fingers pointed to USA and Israel, both the governments denied to acknowledge the existence of such a powerful malware. David Sagner’s incendiary article (on June, 2012) is what first brought the truth behind ‘stuxnet’, which was actually named as ‘Olympic games’ by intelligence agencies (according to the statement of various agency whistle-blowers).

 Former President of Iran Ahmadinejad inspecting centrifuges at Natanz

Former President of Iran Ahmadinejad inspecting centrifuges at Natanz

Director/writer Alex Gibney’s works are most informative when you go under-informed and very professionally executed. Unlike his best documentaries like “Taxi to the Dark Side”, here there’s no formal reinvention; just a very straightforward detailing of gathered information. It’s good that he doesn’t leave any authorial imprint and only includes voice-over to express his frustration over how recurrently he got stone-walled by intelligence agencies. Gibney is also at his best when he briefly jumps back in time to introduce the historical perspective. Nevertheless, since the aesthetics aren’t very noteworthy, we do get little exhausted as valuable information keeps on hitting us with the same note. It’s not that the information we hear becomes dis-interesting; it’s just that our concentrating abilities are tested by the non-dynamic interviews. The recreations and the graphics are also little tiring as we repeatedly see matrix-like codes to represent the dangers inside the malware code (of course, it is not easy to make computer-related information visually engaging). Then, there’s the usual montage of nuclear tests, whenever the word ‘nuclear weapon’ is used or the shots of flickering server banks or power cuts in cities used to create artificial tension (and the lighting & musical cues serves to shove in dramatic effect). Such visual flourishes may work on those who are taking in all these information for the first time, but for others with little knowledge on this subject, these aesthetics seem dull.

Some of the technical jargon are also hard to understand. But, the pace really picks up, when Gibney starts addressing the hazards in cyber war and the need to address the byzantine complexities, prevalent in the cyber battlescape. David Sagner warns how ‘US is the most vulnerable nation to cyber-attacks in the world, with its poorly defended computer-operated infrastructure’. At that point, the documentary becomes a call to fellow Americans and netizens all over the world to start a conversation. It is also a pleasure to see works that exposes American government’s hypocrisy. Enad Kiyaei of American Iranian Council addresses this: “In International law when some country or a coalition of countries targets a nuclear facility, it’s an act of war”. The documentary also ends on an alarming note, as the ‘secret informant’ talks about their alleged new development ‘Nitro Zeus’, an all-powerful cyber weapon that can one day really evolve like the fictional ‘skynet’ and result in loss of lives. With the introduction of ‘Stuxnet’ into the world, a green signal is also provided for powers like China, Russia and other small non-government hackers to come up with their own innovative, life-threatening digital weapons.

The legally vague premises of cyber battlefront, explored in “Zero Days” (116 minutes) will gain more prominence in the next few decades. It talks about a huge problem, which the warmongering, super-power nation doesn’t even want to acknowledge.


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