Friday, January 5, 2018

Zero Days - a film review

If you could go back in time, and if you had the means to do away with Hitler, would you kill him? Would you have the personal courage to kill another man, even if it was Hitler? Would you risk changing history, confident that any alternative course of history couldn’t possibly play out worse than it did in the 20th Century?

If you’re drawn to that kind of hypothetical ethical dilemma, let me recommend the 2016 documentary that reached the top of my Netflix queue the other day called Zero Days. I had not heard – or had not paid much attention to – the story about the Stuxnet malware generated by the Israelis and Americans to hinder the development of nuclear weapons by Iran. The Israelis saw Iran’s capacity to develop the bomb – still do – as an existential risk and, if the premise of the film is to be believed, went overboard and made the colossal error of exposing themselves, the result of which is that there is now software floating around in cyberspace which anybody can harness to destroy another nation’s infrastructure, shut down their water supply, their trains, their electrical grid, their financial systems, all of which could lead to slower death and destruction than a bomb, perhaps, but no less devastating in the end.

It’s probably our disaster fatigue that makes us turn away from information like this. I know I can’t listen anymore to the onslaught of horror stories coming out of Washington. “Don’t Give Me No More Bad News” has become my mantra. I’ve got chocolates to eat and music to listen to.

For most of my life, the world has lived with the grand fear of destruction of the world by nuclear holocaust. Now, however, despite the childish bluster between two guys with terrible haircuts arguing about the size of their nuclear buttons, the real risk is cyberwarfare. Don’t try to convince the hawks of the military-industrial complex; they’re too invested in military hardware, but bombs are actually passé. 

Zero Days filmmaker Alex Gibney, whom Esquire Magazine declared in 2010 to be “the most important documentarian of our time,” has an impressive record of accomplishments. His works include Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God (three Emmy awards); Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (nominated for Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2005); and Taxi to the Dark Side (winner of Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2007), to name just three of his 35 films.

66 Rotten Tomatoes reviews of Zero Days as of May of 2017 produced a positive rating of 91%. It won a Peabody Award in 2017.

The film details the successful efforts of the Americans (the CIA, the NSA) and Israelis (the Mossad) to hack into Iran’s nuclear facility computer and infect it with malware that lead the centrifuges it was building to self-destruct.

Taken for granted is the assumption that the Americans and Israelis are the good guys and the Iranians are the bad guys. No mention is made of the conclusion the bad guys (North Korea included) have reached after observing that nations with nuclear weapons have the necessary deterrence to being attacked, while nations which don’t – think Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan – have been overpowered and devastated by the West. In this black and white world one makes the argument that the bad guys must be kept from building a bomb at all costs. One has no choice but to lie, cheat, do whatever is necessary, including engaging in first-strike aggressive cyberwarfare to shut the bad guys down, to get on top and stay on top in a hostile world.

Zero Days illustrates how even the best laid plans can go awry. The special brilliance in the US/Israeli effort to create this destructive virus is that it could do its job undetected. For a time, Iranian centrifuges were blowing up and their scientists were being fired for incompetence because nobody had any idea they had been hacked. Most importantly, development of the bomb was at a standstill. But then, without informing their American partners, the Israelis started taking chances, and the hacking got exposed. The result was the secret of the destructive code got out. Russia got it. China got it. And in no time the Iranians were back at it, stronger than ever before. The capacity to destroy a nation’s infrastructure is now public domain and there are no international agreements to limit the implementation of such destruction.

We are back where we were when the secrets of the atomic bomb began to proliferate except that now it's not so much about who is king of the hill but who is in a position to hack into whose computers. Only good will stands between us and the end of civilization. If that sounds like hyperbole, imagine the heat waves we had last summer with temperatures over 110 – and somebody takes down all your power grids. No air conditioners, no working hospitals. No trains. And no water. And remember, this is cyberwarfare, not ICBMs. We worry about Kim Jong Un’s ability to fling a bomb at Seattle or Chicago. But with cyberwarfare, you sit in a room anywhere in the world and just hack away at other computers anywhere else in the world. Distances are no longer a factor.

The bad news only gets worse when you recognize that anything to do with these new forms of international warfare are so highly classified that people with any knowledge of what’s going on are under severe threat of some serious legal trouble if they don’t keep their mouths shut. All the world knows what happened to Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London since August of 2012, and Edward Snowden in Moscow. Gibney hauls out a number of prominent figures who tell you how they can’t tell you anything.

Fortunately (for those who are convinced secrecy is an evil) or unfortunately (for those who believe it is a necessity) there are a lot of smart people around who can put two and two together. These include, in the current example, two engineers from Symantec, who talk us through the process of discovering the virus (or “worm” as it’s called) and eventually discovering that the people who put it in place were the Americans and the Israelis. Gibney also throws in an actress to read (with distorted face and voice to create a little extra drama – this is a movie, after all) the words of others involved who would/could not allow their identity to be known.

For me, the most interesting aspect of this tale of modern-day espionage is the reaction to the movie. There are those I’ve quoted above, like the folks at Esquire who consider this documentary a must-see for all Americans and resonate with the charge that secrecy kills democracy, because the American public no longer has oversight over what its leaders are doing. And there are always those whose response goes along the lines of these two comments on the Netflix site:

  • My husband and I ended up falling asleep before we could finish watching. If you love documentaries, I would give it a chance. This documentary was not for me. 

  • Fell asleep watching this dvd. Not entertaining for the average person. Only computer software developers might be interested. Too technical to understand.

I’m at the other end of the spectrum. I have to admit the technical focus was hard slogging at first, but if you stick with it, the bigger story eventually emerges. I’m with Variety, who pronounced it “Clear, urgent and positively terrifying at times.”  

Whether one should kill Hitler if we get the chance to go back in time is an ethical game with no real consequences. Whether we should destroy another nation's infrastructure is not hypothetical. The power is now in our hands. And the even bigger moral dilemma is the issue of secrecy. Do we now surrender to our politicians the sole right to make that decision without oversight?  Is this a new kind of war to be fought by any and all means necessary?

You may argue the film is too long, or it has too much difficult technological stuff that is hard to follow - I don't think so, but you certainly may - but there is no doubt it asks one of the big questions of the age: How do we respond to those in power over us who tell us they know what they are doing and we have no right to question them?

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