Synopsis: The film explores the rise of cyber conflict as a primary way in which nations now compete with and sabotage one another. Cheap, invisible and devastatingly effective, cyber weapons are the present and future of geopolitical conflict – a short-of-war pathway to exercising power. The Perfect Weapon draws on interviews with top military, intelligence and political officials for a comprehensive view of a world of new vulnerabilities, particularly as fear mounts over how cyberattacks and influence operations may affect the 2020 U.S. election, vulnerable power grids, America’s nuclear weapons arsenal, and the global networks that are the backbone of private enterprise. The film also explores how the U.S. government is struggling to defend itself from cyberattacks while simultaneously stockpiling and using the world's most powerful offensive cyber arsenal.
The events covered in The Perfect Weapon demonstrate how the cyber landscape has shifted over the past decade and how the pace of conflict – especially with Russia and China – has accelerated as the 2020 election approaches. These events include:
- How the U.S. and Israeli attack a decade ago on Iran’s nuclear program using the “Stuxnet” malware inspired nations and rogue hackers to develop increasingly sophisticated retaliatory attacks against the U.S and its allies.
- How the Iranian government aggressively retaliated against the casino empire of billionaire political donor Sheldon Adelson after he suggested the U.S. consider the use of a nuclear weapon against Iran.
- How the pending release of a Seth Rogen comedy film so inflamed North Korea’s Kim Jong Un that he directed a wholesale hacking of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s computer network. The hack led to the release of a trove of private and proprietary information about Sony, its executives, and major Hollywood talent, and cost the studio millions of dollars in physical damage.
- How Russia’s remarkable success in 2016 with targeted social media disinformation operations and hack-and-dump of emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager created a new, more sophisticated playbook for election manipulation -- and inspired other U.S. adversaries to build on Vladimir Putin’s accomplishments.
- How the U.S. government’s loss of its most secret, powerful offensive cyber weapons allowed foreign governments like North Korea and Russia to launch global cyberattacks such as NotPetya and Wannacry, costing companies and governments billions in damage.
- How criminal elements have used ransomware attacks to paralyze major American cities like Atlanta and Baltimore -- and new fears that a similar type of attack, if used to target key battleground states, could be used to sow chaos in the upcoming election.
- How the U.S. has struggled to deal with the immediate threat of Russia, while flailing in its efforts to take on its most significant long-term cyber challenge: China. The Trump administration’s inability to keep up with the spread of Chinese-made 5G-networks, the undersea cables that carry global traffic, and now popular apps like TikTok, has contributed to a splitting of the internet -- half free and half subject to control by authoritarian leaders.
- How the effort by the National Security Agency and United States Cyber Command to regain the upper hand in cyber conflict and deter cyber adversaries in the runup to the 2020 election has been undercut by a President who has believed Putin over his own intelligence officials and often fed the conspiracy theories that make Russia’s operations more potent.
Interviewees include former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former NSA Director and first commander of U.S. Cyber Command Keith Alexander, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, current Director of DHS’ Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Christopher Krebs, former Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, filmmaker Seth Rogen, former US Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, and Microsoft President Brad Smith.
The Perfect Weapon is directed by John Maggio (Panic: The Untold Story of the 2008 Financial Crisis, HBO’s The Newspaperman) and comes from Ark Media, the production company headed by Maggio, Barak Goodman and Rachel Dretzin. Former Vice News head Josh Tyrangiel and Sanger served as executive producers of the documentary along with Maggio.
It premiered Friday, October 15th, 2020 on HBO Max