Movie Review: Zero Days: The Complex Story of the Development of the Stuxnet Worm and the Political Implications Surrounding It

Zero Days is a documentary about the development, deployment, and implications of the Stuxnet worm, widely considered one of the most (if not the most) complex malware packages in cyber history. This is not a documentary for everyone. That said, it should be recommended viewing for everyone in the cybersecurity industry; not only for the technical details about Stuxnet’s design, but because it brings to light the complex geopolitical implications surrounding any nation-state cyber attack.

The reason the documentary is not for everyone is because it is a detailed, complex account which requires the viewer to pay closer attention than they normally would during the average romcom or action movie. In addition, less geeky viewers may get bogged down in the discussion on the malware’s architecture. Nonetheless, putting in  the effort will lead the viewer to some unexpected rewards.

I have previously written on this malware so I was familiar with its design and attack vector. Still, the documentary gave quite a bit of information that I was not aware of, for example, how security firms came to grips with a malware exploit that made use of four zero-day exploits. Other revelations concerned the debates within the US government on its deployment against Iran and how the malware influenced the complex relationship between Israel and the US. Also important was the intentional release of the malware into the wild and the implications that this action produced both nationally and internationally.

Most of the documentary is delivered through interviews with those who either participated in the Stuxnet scenario or who are experts in cybersecurity and international politics. Director Alex Gibney blends these interviews with archive footage to produce a compelling tale of espionage and political wrangling. But, perhaps, his most important element is the use of an informant who worked on the Stuxnet project.

She came forward in the hopes of opening up a discussion on cyber warfare and to prevent the collateral damage that such warfare could produce. She also gave some insights into the development of the malware, stating at one point that, “we laughed when people thought they were protected by an air gap”. This refers to the common belief that devices not connected to the internet have nothing to fear from malware. Watch the film to find out the details of the Stuxnet attack.

The revelations in this documentary include the following:

  1. The undeniable fact that Iran was pursuing a nuclear arms program,
  2. An explanation of how the development and deployment of Stuxnet strained US-Israel relations,
  3. Insights into the psychology of President Obama and his aversion to risk,
  4. The paranoic climate of secrecy surrounding Stuxnet which even extended to keeping Homeland Security in the dark, and
  5. How the intentional release of Stuxnet into the wild compromised the security of the US and the world.

Although all of these revelations are important, perhaps, the greatest revelation in this documentary is that the US developed an even more jaw-dropping malware known as Nitro Zeus (NZ) which would have (and could still) wipe out the entire infrastructure of Iran, if Iran refused to go along with the nuclear agreement proposed by the US and its allies. It is not clear if this virus is already in place in Iran and is simply waiting to be deployed if the situation warrants it. In any event, it was, apparently, the fear of this deadly malware’s possible deployment that made Iran eventually agree to the agreement. It was the fear of collateral damage caused by such malware that really made the informant agree to talk to Gibney.

I can understand why many people will not want to make an effort to watch this film. It is, as I have said, challenging. However, if you know nothing about cyber security, watching this documentary could be a real eye-opener, making you more aware of what security firms and governments are facing. If you are in the cyber security game, the film will broaden your understanding of the relationship between world politics and malware development. Understanding the background may help investigators find certain clues in the code. The film makes this quite clear. Finally, if you are interested in politics and international affairs, you will see how these are now influenced by the threats of cyber attacks, not only on individuals, corporations, and government agencies, but on key components of infrastructure that could bring a nation to its knees. So, because such malware could influence everyone’s life in some way or another, it may be worth the effort to watch this well-made documentary. At least, I would recommend doing so.



2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Zero Days: The Complex Story of the Development of the Stuxnet Worm and the Political Implications Surrounding It

  1. Bit dramatic, but otherwise very good. Presents a timeline of events with considerable attention given to the details of how this particular virus was used as well as more general considerations about what the proliferation of such malware means for a world that grows more reliant on technology by the day. Definitely worth your time…


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