New Film ‘Zero Days’ Foreshadows Cyberwarfare’s Frightening Future

The documentary is an ominous warning that cyber attacks are the new, unregulated, furtive frontier in warfare.

A digitized rendering of actor Joanne Tucker, who portrays a composite of NSA sources in the form of an anonymous whistle-blower. (Photo: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Jul 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

“It’s classified.” “I don’t want to get into the details.” “I’m unable to elaborate.” “I don’t know, and if I did, we wouldn’t talk about it anyway.”

Those are just a few of the verbal roadblocks filmmaker Alex Gibney encountered during the making of his latest documentary. The film, Zero Days, opens July 8 and is rife with people who don’t want to talk to him. (Disclaimer: Zero Days is produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.) The secrecy that shrouded his inquiry into Stuxnet—malware developed by the U.S. and Israeli governments to infiltrate an Iranian nuclear facility—simply served as fuel for the filmmaker’s storytelling.

“The film raises whether or not secrecy is adding to our security or detracting from it, and I think it’s doing the latter,” Gibney told TakePart. “We can’t have a debate about cyberweapons because nobody’s really talking about them.”

Undeterred by the clandestine nature of Stuxnet, which derailed the centrifuges at the nuclear plant in Natanz, Iran, in 2010, Gibney’s film clearly intends to provoke just such a debate—with, or more likely without, the National Security Agency’s blessing. The film ominously suggests that cyber attacks are the new, unregulated, furtive frontier in warfare between nation states.

Watch the trailer:

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“The threat to all of us is enormous,” Gibney said. “We’re at a point where people are beginning to reckon with the potential for calamity.”

To illustrate that threat, Gibney spent the first year of the filmmaking process attempting to get any U.S. or Israeli intelligence sources to speak to him, with little success. “It was really frustrating,” said Gibney. “I didn’t know quite how we were going to handle it.”

To help earn the trust of his intelligence sources and to assuage the uneasiness they felt, Gibney hired actor Joanne Tucker to portray a composite of their responses in the form of an anonymous NSA whistle-blower. Using a digital filter that obscures her likeness, numerical ones and zeros drift dreamily away from her as she speaks and gestures, echoing the matrix of code that wafts throughout the film. The digitized rendering of Tucker offered an inventive buffer for nervous government sources.

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“When we came up with this mechanism to protect their identities, we got them to open up more than they would otherwise,” said Gibney, who doesn’t comment on the number of sources he spoke to. “There’s a deep concern out there about being prosecuted. But they were very much motivated by the idea that the public should know.”

Filmmaker Alex Gibney. (Photo: Courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

The main character of Stuxnet, Gibney jokes, is “a piece of code.” Stuxnet—nicknamed by the government employees who created it and known internally at the NSA as “Olympic Games”—might have posed a dry leading personality if not for the supporting roles of Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu. The two cybersecurity analysts from Symantec, a software company in Los Angeles, were tasked with decoding the self-replicating virus; their clever sleuthing features heavily in the film. The task of unraveling the code, along with all the other viruses they encounter on the job, has informed their view of these covert government operations.

“We’ve seen cases where vulnerabilities have been discovered by one party and not disclosed, and another party independently discovers the same vulnerability and utilizes it,” said Chien. “The U.S. has the most to lose. Stuxnet really did open Pandora’s box.”

Now that the box is open, Gibney hopes films such as Zero Days will provoke a conversation the government is reticent about having.

“If I could wave my magic wand, the government would come clean about the nature of the threat so that everybody could make themselves aware and we can begin to drill down some of these policies,” he said. “There are more and more secrets and more and more punishments for revealing those secrets, but that’s not serving us.”

Zero Days will be in theaters and available on Demand and on iTunes and Amazon Video July 8.