Zero Days: Cyber Attacks as a Weapon of War

 Review: Written by Justin Marinelli.

“Right now, the norm in cyberspace is ‘do whatever you can get away with’. It’s not a good norm, but that’s the norm that we have. That’s the norm preferred by certain countries who engage in a lot of activities that they feel are benefiting their national security” – Colonel Gary D. Brown, staff judge advocate for US Cyber Command.

Some years ago, the “Stuxnet Virus” became a major focus in the news (at least for a time). I recently had the pleasure of watching the documentary “Zero Days”, which not only analyses the history of the Stuxnet Virus, but also puts it in the context of the growing threat of cyberattacks and their increasing usage in the power politics of the game of nations. To be succinct, this is highly informative and incredibly interesting documentary that will leave you with a terrifying anxiety as to the future of war.

Obviously, the most intuitive way to judge a documentary is on how informative it actually is. In this regard, “Zero Days” is a magnificent success. It does a wonderful job of explaining just how unprecedented a cyberweapon like this happens to be while also doing a superb job of illustrating how the usage of this weapon fit into the political context of its time.

Furthermore, credit must be given to the level of depth that was reached in this investigation. Many of the key portions of this documentary hinge on the testimony of anonymous insiders from within the American intelligence community, whose accounts — if they are true — are incredibly illuminating in regard to the light they shine on how these agencies operate and how they interact with their counterparts from other nations (a unique moment comes through in the anger of one account when it discusses how the Israeli alteration of the Stuxnet virus code was what led to its detection by cyber-security firms).

If you believe the insider account that is presented (and I won’t tell you what to think, but I will warn you that anything coming from the mouth of anyone with a background in intelligence should be interpreted carefully), the US infiltrated Iran’s entire civilian infrastructure and could even now shut it down at the flip of a switch. I personally think that this is an attempt to “bluff” Iran, as it were, but it cannot be denied that this statement is plausible enough that it could very well be true. If it is, that is a terrifying thought, because if the US has that capability, it is very possible that other countries do as well.

The logical implication is clear. The next time a war is fought between major powers, civilian infrastructure will be targeted and shut down almost immediately in an effort to annihilate the enemy’s will to fight. Imagine a city the size of London or Moscow without lighting, transport, or refrigeration for months. The grandest metropolises of the world will be brought to their knees without a single bomb being dropped or a single shot being fired. It will be the bombing of Dresden re-imagined as a cyberpunk nightmare on an unprecedented scale. That is what the future of war will bring to us.

That image, is in the end, perhaps the most important takeaway from “Zero Days”. The instruments of war with which nations will battle in the 21st Century are no less destructive than the nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons which claimed so many lives over the course of the previous 100 years. And yet unlike all those weapons, there exist no treaties to limit the use of cyber-attacks, nor are there any norms that outline the context in which such weapons are to be applied.

We are living in the Wild West right now, and unlike the Cold War, we cannot rely on the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction to keep the balance because with cyber-weapons it is not always possible to trace the source, and thus it is not always the case that you know which entity is to be the object of retribution. Anyone could be attacked at any time, and while it is normally the case that these attacks can be tracked to their origin, this is not always the case. I will refrain from discussing what might happen if a non-state actor does this sort of thing, but do not take that as a sign that such an event would not be equally (if not more) precipitous.

The success of the previous treaties in limiting the use of dangerous “weapons of mass destruction” has shown that success can be had in trying to limit the use of our most destructive weapons. Open, public debate should be encouraged as to how to best achieve this matter, for the same manner of open, public debate on the issue of nuclear weapons lead to the development of the intellectual frameworks that allowed nuclear war to be avoided. A failure to allow for the same manner of debate would guarantee the possibility of a future far more dangerous than what we could ensure for ourselves otherwise, and that is a future worth avoiding at all costs.


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