Hillary Clinton’s e-mail. Donald Trump’s tweets. Two videos of shocking police encounters followed by the tragic assassinations of five police officers in Dallas. To an extraordinary degree, the past week was replete with ways the cyber age is shaping events.
The weekend will offer yet another example with the debut of “Zero Days,” a documentary that examines the prospect of cyberwarfare through the example of Stuxnet, a computer virus devised to destroy portions of an Iranian nuclear facility, and by extension delay the Persian nation’s potential nuclear weapons program.
Stuxnet, attest experts in “Zero Days,” was the most sophisticated and significant computer virus ever developed. Its striking efficacy may have effectively entered the world into a type of warfare that has little definition and even fewer rules.
“This has a whiff of August 1945,” former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden says in the film. “Somebody just used a new weapon and this weapon will not be put back into the box.”
And just as with the dawn of the nuclear-weapons age, America is ahead. But maybe not by much, and maybe not for long.
Using a different World War II analogy, Peter Singer, a strategist and senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said in an interview that, “When it comes to a fear of a ‘cyber Pearl Harbor,’ Russia and China could, but don’t want to, while Al-Qaida and ISIS can’t, but would like to. With the caveat for both groups being: Not at this time.”
For nonstate actors, “It’s not just about finding technology talent, finding hackers,” said Singer, co-author of “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know,” as well as other books examining this issue. Citing the misleading myth of “finding a couple of teenage hackers in their parents’ basement sipping Red Bull,” Singer said Stuxnet required extraordinary expertise, including, yes, “some of the top hacker talent in the world,” but also nuclear physicists, engineers and “top espionage spy talent.”
That kind of cohort can usually only be assembled by nation-states. And despite denials or nonanswers from government officials, Stuxnet was reportedly jointly deployed by the U.S. and Israel.
But Singer warns that unlike the Cold War that accompanied the nuclear age, “there is not mutuality — we’re far more digital.” So the U.S. is accordingly more vulnerable. But to a significant degree every nation, and thus everyone, lives in a society reliant on intricate, integrated systems, and shutting them down or sabotaging them would wreak havoc. And it’s highly likely that if — or, tragically, when — the U.S. again enters into armed conflict with another nation that cyberwarfare will join land, air and sea as battlefields.
Although “Zero Days” is a documentary, it has elements of sci-fi and spy thriller, as well as some darkly comic moments, including a montage of U.S. and Israeli officials mum on Stuxnet despite it now being well-chronicled.
This secrecy is one of the film’s key themes, co-producer Javier Botero said in an interview. “I would hope that people would leave the film feeling like this is an urgent issue, but also that we haven’t crossed the point of no return — that there are people who really care about this issue who are doing their best to make sure we don’t get to that point but they’re losing the battle. What we need is a public that is informed about the issue, that cares about the issue, and pushes for transparency and real international regulation.”
But the necessary transparency to engage this debate is difficult when the issue is shrouded in such secrecy. “This stuff is hideously overclassified, and it gets in the way of a mature public discussion as to what we as a democracy want our nation to be doing up here in the cyber domain,” said one passionate participant in “Zero Days.” No, not a nosy reporter or antiwar activist, but Hayden, the former CIA and NSA director.
However arduously arrived, global protocols on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons have made the world safer. No progress will be made on similar cyber agreements if leaders won’t acknowledge, let alone discuss, the profound impact these new weapons and this new era may have on humanity.
As for this new era, some may rue how the information age looks like Pandora’s box with a plug and a portal. But as always with technology, it’s not the machine but mankind that matters most.
“I don’t think it is a perfect parallel with the nuclear age because this [cyber technology] is more important, more powerful technology to the story of humanity,” Singer reflected. “The internet has been this incredible power for spreading knowledge, information, creating new economies and efficiencies. It’s also been a realm of conflict. … This feels new, but in many ways it’s not a new story.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.