Does anybody remember Stuxnet? It was a joint United States-Israeli cyberattack that destroyed machines controlling centrifuges being used to enrich uranium for Iran's nuclear program. While the cyberattack was slow to be carried out, it was very effective in terms of stealth, going undetected for 17 months and then deleting itself after completing its mission.
"Zero Days," a new documentary set to premiere at the upcoming Berlin International Film Festival, will expose that Stuxnet was in fact just a small part of a wider cyber operation against Iran that was code-named Nitro Zeus.
According to the documentary, the United States was said to have infiltrated both civilian and military infrastructures in Iran. With the infiltration, operatives gained the ability to launch highly damaging cyberattacks that would cripple the nation at a moment's notice.
The hacks carried out by the United States targeted transport infrastructure, power plants and air defenses, with U.S. agents regularly going back into the systems to ensure that the cyberattacks were still armed and ready to be deployed when called for.
Nitro Zeus, which was planned during the early days of the Obama administration, was developed as a backup plan in case diplomatic efforts to curb Iran's nuclear program failed. The plan has been shelved for the foreseeable future as Iran and six other countries agreed to a nuclear deal last summer.
At the height of the operation, officials said that thousands of military and intelligence personnel of the United States were involved, as the country spent millions upon millions of dollars on Nitro Zeus and placed electronic implants in Iran's computer networks.
Nitro Zeus took on great urgency as the government believed that Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would launch a strike on the nuclear facilities of Iran, a move that would draw in the United States into the hostilities that will follow.
Some officials within the National Security Agency and the State Department expressed their concerns on the ethics and legality of the operations, as civilians will also be affected. The legality of cyberattacks disabling infrastructure is a complex issue with international law on the topic not yet established, and so it could be a boon that Nitro Zeus is shelved as controversy would surely have arisen if it was launched.