The recent WannaCry computer virus infected more than 230,000 computers in more than 150 countries. It is not yet clear who was behind the ransomware attack that affected organizations, hospitals and telecom companies worldwide, but it was hardly unexpected.
Months earlier, filmmaker Alex Gibney released his documentary Zero Days, in which he warns of massive-scale cyberattacks and their devastating effect on modern life.
He documents a cyberweapon found lurking in computers around the world in 2010.
Recruiting the help of computer experts and NSA insiders, Gibney analyzes the Stuxnet computer virus that was developed in the United States in cooperation with Israel to infect and destroy Iran’s nuclear program.
Eric Chien, technical director of security response at the global cybersecurity company Symantec, told VOA the United States developed the virus as leverage against Iran, to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful.
“Certainly the Iran deal is connected to this story,” Chien said.
He tells VOA the Stuxnet worm and its more dangerous sister virus Nitro Zeus were designed to do a lot of harm, such as, “shutting down huge portions of the Iranian grid; and this was a subject we know, of some debate inside the government, because it would involve not just military targets but also civilian targets like hospitals.”
He says diplomacy achieved an agreement with Iran, but says an unstated aspect of that agreement is the United States had “a big stick to use” if Iran violated the treaty.
“That’s a very interesting thing because a lot of the legality around Stuxnet is very much in doubt,” Chien said. “In point of fact, the United States and Israel attacked Iran’s critical infrastructure in peace time.”
Though the Stuxnet operation was originally successful, the film asserts, the virus was eventually discovered and fell into the wrong hands, which could enhance it and turn it against its creator.
“It became much clearer to us that this was no longer sort of evolution of some piece of malware but a revolution that became the first sort of cyber sabotage malware that could actually cause physical destruction. And it did open Pandora’s Box,” Chien said.
“That’s where we are today. Now, what we see is many likely nation states conducting attacks all over the world, we see staging, so that potentially one day if they need flip the switch they could cause some additional sabotage to occur.”
Many attacks, targets
The Symantec security expert says the number of cyberattacks has greatly increased over the years. He says Symantec is now “tracking close to maybe a hundred different attacks on a daily basis.”
Gibney says cyberwarfare is dangerous because it has no borders or rules. It can strike anywhere, anyone, at any time.
“People depend on trains, people depend on airplanes, and people depend on their electricity. This is modern life. So, what we’re saying in this film is these weapons threaten modern life as we know it,” Gibney said.
Chien says there is always a need for mitigation when viruses sabotage our computer-controlled infrastructures.
“We actually saw recently in Ukraine that their power grid was attacked through a cyber piece of malware,” he said, “and they were able to bring back the power within a few hours. And were able to do so because actually their infrastructure is frankly a little bit more behind and they had the ability to go a manual mode. And literally just flip the switch and put things back on.”
Though there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between the recent ransomware WannaCry and Stuxnet, experts such as Chien say they are both launched from remote, often undetected locations by unknown groups who are either allegiant to rogue nation states launching undercover attacks or are mercenary hackers paid by the highest bidder to conduct cyberterrorism.
Gibney says his goal in making Zero Days was to make the public aware of the extent and danger of cyberwarfare and allow us to ask questions and demand transparency from our governments.
“At the very least, we can all demand that our leaders start talking about it more openly and stop pretending that this stuff is not going on when it is, because it’s affecting all of us at a most basic level,” the filmmaker said.