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In 'Zero Days,' Alex Gibney tells the secret history of Stuxnet, cyberwarfare's Hiroshima moment

“We understand nuclear capability. We have to at least start talking about the capability of these weapons.”

Amelia Krales for Recode

Hackers have been interfering with computers for decades, sometimes for political ends. But the world of cyberwarfare took a major, scary step in 2010, says Alex Gibney, the director of the new documentary "Zero Days."

Gibney, whose previous documentaries include "Going Clear," "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine" and "Taxi to the Dark Side" (for which he won an Oscar), set out in "Zero Days" to chronicle U.S. and Israeli efforts to remotely sabotage Iran's nuclear program. The worm they developed, dubbed Stuxnet, targeted the machines that controlled uranium-enriching centrifuges in the Iranian city of Natanz.

"It took over and monitored the entire operation for days," Gibney explained on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. "And when it was ready, on its own, without any command from the outside, it launched an attack."

We know about the worm because it eventually escaped from Iran’s nuclear facilities in Iran and began infecting other computers. Gibney called Stuxnet "extremely disquieting" and likens it to the first nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan because it’s a "new kind of weapon."

"People were hacking, they were breaking in, they were stealing computer code, they were shutting down your computer," he said of cyberwarfare in the past. "But in this case, the code is actually infecting the machines that operate the other machines. Now they’re shutting down devices that are not computers."

That power, he argued, must be reckoned with more publicly, similar to how countries disclose that they have nuclear weapons, even though they keep secret where those missiles are stored. To date, neither the U.S. nor Israel will confirm on the record that Stuxnet was their doing.

On the new podcast, Gibney also discussed what he thinks of Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs after directing the critical "Man in the Machine" last year; what the Church of Scientology has done in retaliation since the release of "Going Clear"; and why the documentary world is booming.

"Reality TV, oddly, helped," he said. "People got used to the idea that you could watch stuff that was starring real people and it was interesting. You weren’t allowed to say that they were documentaries 15 years ago. Everybody said, ‘Please don’t use the word documentary! Nobody will watch them.’ Now people gravitate toward them because they’re great."

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