“The potential for enormous destruction and loss of life is palpable when it comes to cyberweapons,” says Alex Gibney, director of the new film Zero Days, which delves into the creation, deployment, and implications of the Stuxnet virus. Stuxnet, a self-replicating cyberweapon launched by the U.S. and Israel into the Natanz nuclear plant in Iran, was an effort to thwart Iran’s nuclear progress by taking control of the plant’s centrifuges, spinning them until they would explode. “The reason it is hugely significant is it is the first time a computer code has crossed the threshold from the realm of cyber to the realm of the physical. So it is blowing stuff up.”
“It was a brilliant and elegant weapon which achieved a goal of slowing down Iran’s path to being a nuclear power. However, as a precedent, it was extremely dangerous because it was an attack on critical infrastructure during peacetime. Had that been done to us we would have been within our rights to start a war.”
While Zero Days unfolds as a detective story, following the cybersecurity experts at Symantec who discovered the Stuxnet virus, a good portion of the film portrays the continued secrecy of cyberwarfare, something Gibney finds both frustrating and dangerous.
“We know that Stuxnet was launched by Israel and the United States against Iran. The United States won’t admit that. Israel won’t admit that,” says Gibney. “We have a situation now where the weapons have gone way beyond Stuxnet in terms of their sophistication and their destructive power. Yet by keeping that offensive cyber-capability secret we deprive everybody in this country–in a democracy–from having any kind of debate over how and when and why they should be used. So the secrecy is actually putting us in existential risk in this case.”
Gibney sat down with Reason TV to discuss the film, whether cyber-weapons are analogous to nuclear weapons, and whether he considers himself a “conspiracy factualist.”