• Cyberwar - Stuxnet 101 (SBS VICELAND)Source: SBS VICELAND
In Cyberwar, host Ben Makuch takes us inside an escalating arms race playing out in the digital world. His investigation is a sobering reminder of its implications on the real world.
Anthony Zwierzchaczewski

17 Nov 2016 - 11:35 AM  UPDATED 17 Nov 2016 - 11:36 AM

In the past decade, cyber-crime has graduated to all-out cyber warfare, and as the Internet of Things rapidly becomes reality, connecting everything from our lightbulbs to our toasters to the Internet, it poses very real dangers in the physical world.

In the opening episode, Makuch gets inside the story of Stuxnet, arguably the first shot taken in this new era of warfare. It’s a a Cold War spy thriller recast for the digital age: James Bond for the modern world, without the thuggishness and cynical grit that accompanied his own retooling. Instead we’re taken into a world of hackers, geopolitical unrest and private security firms with names straight out of a 90's comic book.

What makes the story of Stuxnet compelling isn’t just the espionage, the assassinations and those totally excellent names, it’s the wider implications of what this moment in time represented – the moment malware jumped species, so to speak. Stuxnet was the first digital weapon designed to do damage in the real world, and its deployment against an Iranian nuclear enrichment plant kicked off not only an invisible arms race, but a redefinition of what constitutes an act of war.

This isn’t a dull conversation with hackers, security experts and some highly-positioned US officials, nor is it an irresponsible piece of fear-mongering.

If it all sounds a little ripped from the pages of 80's cyberpunk, I’m sorry to say there’s a distinct absence of cyberdecks and street samurais. What you get instead is sabotage via USB stick and exploding water bottles. But it’s the everyday, almost pedestrian way that cyber warfare plays out around us that makes the story more than a little unnerving. By the point you reach the second episode, examining the potential of attacks against critical infrastructure, you may just be tossing your router out a window.

But if it seems like a war that can’t be won, some reassurance comes from the security agencies and firms working to prevent cyber-attacks, and it’s quite incredible who Makuch gets access to. It might be terrifying to see Shoran, a search engine designed for the Internet of Things, highlighting the many vulnerabilities connected devices enable, but the data visualisation is at least cool to look at.


It’s the tour of the US Department of Homeland Security’s dedicated cyber warfare control centre that really drives the point home: this isn’t the shape of warfare to come; it’s already here.

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A show like this could easily collapse under it’s weighty topic and some Star Trek-rivaling techno-babble, so it’s to Makuch’s credit that he not only keeps the story engaging, he makes it accessible too. This isn’t a dull conversation with hackers, security experts and some highly-positioned US officials, nor is it an irresponsible piece of fear-mongering. It’s a fascinating examination of the changing ways we define and fight war in the 21st century.

As we move towards a wholly connected world, it’s worth being reminded of the potential vulnerabilities of those connections, not be made a afraid, just to be informed. Since the Second World War the very idea of war has been changing, shrinking from industrial, mass produced slaughter to the coordinated strikes of terror cells. If war had already shrunk to a cellular level at the dawn of this century, it’s contraction has only continued in the years since, to the point that it’s disappeared from sight entirely, invisible and intangible. In Cyberwar, the reality of this invisible war is made more than clear, and while it’s a conflict you can’t see, it’s set to have profound effects on the physical world.

Cyberwar airs on SBS VICELAND Thursday nights at 9:25pm. Or embrace your cyber future and stream it on SBS On Demand:

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