NOVA | CyberWar
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Watch Wednesday, October 14, 2015 at 9pm on WMHT TV

The global cyberwar is heating up, and the stakes are no longer limited to the virtual world of computers. Now, sophisticated cyber weapons unleashed via the Internet can inflict physical damage—destroying control systems that regulate everything from food factories, gas pipelines, power plants and chemical facilities to the elevators in our buildings.  It may seem farfetched that a computer program can wreak destruction from a distance.  But the United States is investing billions of dollars in this new form of warfare—and we’re not alone.  Allies and enemies alike are rushing to develop these weapons. But what will this new arms race mean for our future?  Will it make the U.S. more vulnerable to cyber attacks and retaliation? NOVA pulls back the curtain on a top-secret world to examine a chilling new reality in CyberWar (w.t.), premiering in January 2015 on PBS (check local listings). 

In this gripping new documentary, NOVA gains unprecedented and unrestricted access to an archive of top-secret NSA documents taken by former cyber warrior, Edward Snowden.  They detail how the United States, its allies and its enemies are all searching for offensive cyber weapons and how America’s quest for dominance may inadvertently be putting the US at risk.

Featuring a one-of-a-kind interview with Edward Snowden as well as former NSA employees, leading cyber-security specialists, defense experts and government officials, pioneers in cryptology and investigative journalists who have probed the murky realm of criminal and strategic hacking,  CyberWar takes viewers around the globe to explore the invention of this new technology-driven mode of warfare and some of the actual cases in which it has been used to attack real targets.  The film will also reveal, through NSA’s own documents, how cyber attacks may unfold and how difficult they will be to defend.

“In CyberWar, NOVA’s unparalleled access gives viewers an inside look at the hard science and highly sophisticated technology driving this new era of weaponized software—and the implications for nations and individuals when these malicious computer viruses and stealthy programs are unleashed,” said Paula S. Apsell, Senior Executive Producer for NOVA.

In the past, the world was largely dependent on an infrastructure of hardwires linking switches to equipment and devices. Then came the Internet, at first simply a new means of peaceful communication. Now the internet has also become a massive industrial switch, enabling global critical infrastructures to be remotely controlled, modernizing everything from water purification systems to the national electrical grids. But those advances come with a risk: the possibility for anyone with a laptop, and the right set of instructions, to penetrate the porous web of signals that link these systems together.

CyberWar outlines the growth of the cyber offensive in the United States. The public is already aware of controversial eavesdropping and surveillance abilities by the NSA and other government agencies. Today, the National Security Agency (NSA)—the country’s largest, most powerful, and most secret intelligence agency—is also already using the Internet as a weapons delivery system for a new type of battle.  From a series of leaks and a few unintended consequences, the once-hidden cyberwar being waged by the NSA is coming into full view. The film also looks at why the United States considers it so important to take such an aggressive stance and dominate the field.

NOVA investigates the command center for the NSA’s secret city, “Site M,” which serves as the new headquarters of U.S. Cyber Command, and also brings viewers inside the Department of Homeland Security’s cyberdefense facility at the Idaho National Laboratory, where regular training exercises are held on protecting the nation’s critical infrastructure from computer viruses.   

Reported by author James Bamford, who has spent decades pulling back the curtain on the activities of the NSA for previous documentaries, such as NOVA’s “Spy Factory,” the film also interviews an array of compelling experts. NOVA is granted a rare interview with former-NSA contractor Edward Snowden, whose last job for the agency focused on cyber warfare. NOVA also obtained unrestricted access to the entire collection of archives Snowden took from the NSA, including hundreds of thousands of documents not yet released.  CyberWar will also feature conversations with General Michael Hayden. Director the National Security Agency during the 9-11 attacks and Director of the CIA during the development of the first cyber weapons.

NOVA also explores how the NSA is building the capability to attack infrastructure digitally, using the Internet to target the small, embedded devices that control most machines.  These devices can be programmed remotely, as well as be hacked remotely.  CyberWar highlights the vulnerability of these devices and why they are prized targets for the thousands of hackers around the world working hard every day to find weaknesses and gaps that allow them to break into systems.

In one case study on malicious software, NOVA dissects the notorious Stuxnet software worm, originally developed by the CIA and implanted with Israel’s assistance in an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility.  Stuxnet was designed to destroy the Iranian centrifuges, and may have delayed Iran’s bomb program and forestalled an Israeli attack. However, the self-replicating virus also escaped and ended up infecting more than 100,00 computers worldwide.  NOVA meets with industrial control systems security expert Ralph Langner, who, with his team of cyber security researchers, was able to reverse engineer Stuxnet, determining that the virus was a military-grade cyber weapon, and unearthing clues tracing its provenance back to its creators, the U.S. government and Israel.

The film also looks at the risks involved in using this new technology. In pursuit of dominance in the virtual battlefield, the United States is seen to have the overwhelming advantage - but that advantage could open the country up to attacks.  In cyber warfare, the path of destruction can potentially lead right back to the country that sent the “malware,” or hidden computer viruses, and a virtual attack can often “blowback,” resulting in either retaliation or infecting the attacker as well as the target. 

Because of the information revealed in documents leaked by Snowden, countries around the world now know the extent of the NSA’s eavesdropping and secret planting of malware in their systems, and some are beginning to fight back.  As the most Internet-connected country on earth, the United States is also the most vulnerable.  CyberWar explores the controversies surrounding this secret global warfare and what it means for the future of America.