Review of the Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon

Countdown to Zero Day: Stuxnet and the Launch of the World’s First Digital Weapon

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Zetter’s book engages in a heroic effort to summarize, describe, and explain the significance of the NSA’s and Israel’s first ‘cyber weapon’, named Stuxnet. This piece of malware was used to disrupt the production of nuclear material in Iran as part of broader covert efforts to delimit the country’s ability to construct a nuclear weapon. 

Multiple versions of Stuxnet were created, as were a series of complementary or derivative malware species with names such as Duqu and Flame. In all cases the malware was unusually sophisticated and relied on chains of exploits or novel techniques that advanced certain capabilities from academic theory to implementable practice. The reliance on zero-day vulnerabilities, or those for which no patches are available, combined with deliberate efforts to subvert the Windows Update system as well as use fraudulently signed digital certificates, bear the hallmarks of developers being willing to compromise global security for the sake of a specific American-Israeli malware campaign. In effect, the decision to leave the world’s computers vulnerable to the exploits used in the creation of Stuxnet demonstrate that offence was prioritized over defence by the respective governments and their signals intelligence agencies which authored the malware.

The book regales the reader with any number of politically sensitive tidbits of information: the CIA was responsible for providing some information on Iran’s nuclear ambitions to the IAEA, Russian antivirus researchers were monitored by Israeli (and perhaps other nations’) spies, historically the CIA and renown physicists planted false stories in Nature, the formal recognition as cyberspace as the fifth domain of battle in 2010 was merely formal recognition of work that had been ongoing for a decade prior, the shift to a wildly propagating version of Stuxnet likely followed after close access operations were no longer possible and the flagrancy of the propagation was likely an error, amongst many other bits of information.

Zetter spends a significant amount of time unpacking the ways in which the United States government determines if a vulnerability should be secretly retained for government use as part of a vulnerabilities equities process. Representatives from the Department of Homeland Security who were quoted in the book noted that they had never received information from the National Security Agency of a vulnerability and, moreover, that in cases where the Agency was already exploiting a reported vulnerability it was unlikely that disclosure would happen after entering the vulnerability into the equities process. As noted by any number of people in the course of the book, the failure by the United States (and other Western governments) to clearly explain their vulnerabilities disclosure processes, or the manners in which they would respond to a cyber attack, leaves unsettled the norms of digital security as well as leaves unanswered the norms and policies concerning when (and how) a state will respond to cyber attacks. To date these issues remain as murky as when the book was published in 2014.

The Countdown to Zero Day, in many respects, serves to collate a large volume of information that has otherwise existed in the public sphere. It draws in interviews, past technical and policy reports, and a vast quantity of news reports. But more than just collating materials it also explains the meanings of them, draws links between them that had not previously been made in such clear or straightforward fashions, and explains the broader implications of the United States’ and Israel’s actions. Further, the details of the book render (more) transparent how anti-virus companies and malware researchers conduct their work, as well as the threats to that work in an era when a piece of malware could be used by a criminal enterprise or a major nation-state actor with a habit of proactively working to silence researchers. The book remains an important landmark in the history of security journalism, cybersecurity, and the politics of cybersecurity. I would heartily recommend it to a layperson and expert alike.