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What Alex Gibney's 'Zero Days' teaches us about cyber warfare

The latest filmmaker from documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is an examination of cyber warfare.
The latest filmmaker from documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney is an examination of cyber warfare.
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Alex Gibney's "Zero Days" is a deep dive into the world of cyber warfare, a subject that has become unsettlingly relevant after Russia's alleged hack of the Democratic National Committee and other political organizations.

The documentary focuses on a powerful cyber weapon called Stuxnet. It’s a “malicious computer worm” that experts believe was developed by the United States and Israel in a joint effort to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities. Now, a study by the cyber security firm Symantec shows that Stuxnet has spread far beyond its original target, popping up on computers around the globe.

Gibney joined Frame host John Horn to discuss the making of "Zero Days" and its increased relevance in the wake of recent events.

Interview Highlights

On the secrecy surrounding Stuxnet:

We ended up making an issue out of the fact that nobody would speak. So we recorded over and over again how many people said, Sorry, I can’t comment on that. And also how ridiculous it was, because we were asking them to comment on something that was well known. It wasn’t like a covert operation that hadn’t been blown. It had been thoroughly blown — which is to say the Stuxnet worm in the Natanz plant in Iran.

On the importance of cyber regulation:

The conversation has got to be, What are the rules of the road when it comes to cyber conflict? Because we need to know. And we need to know now. Obviously, the recent hacks into the DNC and the emails [of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman] lead us in a different direction. Or the Sony hack by North Korea. When is an attack something that’s an attack of espionage? And when is it an actual attack on critical infrastructure, which can be defined as an act of war. But there are no rules in cyber. As one lawyer inside the NSA explained to me, the rules are basically, Do whatever you can get away with. Which is not a very good set of rules.

On being part of the story in 'Zero Days':

It was the frustration over people not talking that led me to become part of the story. In other words, I’m the listener. I’m expecting to be talked to. There’s silence at the other end of the microphone. I had to fill the silence, in effect, to talk about how frustrating it was. And that was a way of me talking back to these people who were absurdly refusing to talk. And frankly, that became one of the themes of the film. When you have weapons this powerful, the idea that we’re not talking about their power, and how they should be governed and how they should be used, is obscene. It’s really an offense against democracy.

On how little we know about cyber warfare:

I think most Congress people are pretty ignorant. Obviously there are some committees that deal with this material and those Congress people have been briefed. But I think, whether it's Congress writ large or the citizenry of this country, we really know painfully little about how this stuff works. And one of the reasons for that is that the U.S. has kept so secret about its own weapons because it wanted an advantage.

Takeaways for personal cyber security:

In terms of email, nothing is ever secure. So type every email as if it's going to be published by the New York Times. We did use a certain amount of PGP — "pretty good privacy" email. That is to say, encrypted email. And we also used some old school techniques, like using a typewriter instead of a computer. But when it comes to passwords and such ... I have learned that you don't use the same password. You keep changing your passwords and you do something simple ... which is have two-factor authentication.

On the possibility of a 'Zero Days' sequel:

Our election became something that was being manipulated by a foreign power who was kind of monitoring it in real time. This story has gone so far, has become so present. It would seem a shame not to revisit it.


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