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HBO's New Documentary Warns Of The Dangers Of Cyberwarfare


"The Perfect Weapon," now on HBO, is a documentary about a danger we've all heard a lot about but don't really know.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: New and frightening warning from the FBI on hackers using malicious software to launch a cyberattack against U.S...

SIMON: It's based on the bestselling book by New York Times national security correspondent David E. Sanger about a new form of conflict that is global, inexpensive, invisible and supremely available to small groups, not just large powers. John Maggio is the director of "The Perfect Weapon," and he joins us now from Brooklyn. Thank you so much for being with us.

JOHN MAGGIO: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: You know, I'm going to ask you plenty of questions about the dangers that cyber warfare poses to the U.S. But I have to ask you first - did we fire the first shots across the bow?

MAGGIO: It appears as if we did, Scott, because when we attacked the Iranian nuclear program in 2007, the code that we put into the plant was released. And everyone knew about it. Now, there are plenty of covert kind of operations that go on, probably things we'll never know about. But that one was let out of the box. And because of that, it appears as if we fired the first shot. And we've been paying for it ever since.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a few attacks we know about - 2013 cyberattack on Las Vegas. That was done in response to something a casino owner said.

MAGGIO: That's right. Well, he wasn't just any casino owner. It was Sheldon Adelson.

SIMON: Oh, a well-connected casino owner.

MAGGIO: That's correct. And he had gone online. He was part of a symposium where he talked about actually setting off a nuclear weapon against Iran as a way to stop their nuclear program. And that video went onto YouTube. It went viral. And the Iranians found out about it. And they planned a very powerful, destructive cyberattack on his Sands casino operation.

SIMON: To demonstrate something to him or to the United States?

MAGGIO: Well, that's the thing about these sorts of attacks. You know, they're short of war attacks. They're not necessarily attacking our critical infrastructure all the time. But it sends a message that a destructive attack is easy for a country like Iran. It's an asymmetrical attack. And it made a very strong point once it was let out. I mean, the Sands Corporation did everything they could to hide the fact that they'd lost $40 million in their technology. But it was let out. And it sent a frightening message. And as David Sanger says in the film, what happened in Vegas didn't stay in Vegas.

SIMON: Yeah. 2014 cyberattack essentially brought down a Seth Rogen-James Franco film, "The Interview," which, in fact, does raise serious questions about freedom of expression - and also, you know, a major film corporation, Sony.

MAGGIO: Yeah, that was the one that really got so much notice because it became suddenly an international incident. And I have to say, it's one of the big issues in the film that I think people will recognize is that the U.S. is uniquely vulnerable to these kinds of attacks because of our openness, because of our First Amendment, because of the public square. Our weapons against authoritarian regimes don't necessarily have the same effect. Hack-and-dump attacks, like what happened at Sony, are not as effective to countries like Iran and Russia.

SIMON: As your documentary may explain, the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg - they're not just hackers but, in a way, novelists and actors, too, aren't they?

MAGGIO: That's right. You know, it's very interesting. They studied all of the sort of weak points and the divisions in our society. And they learned to exploit them. And that's right. The way they were able to sort of adopt our language and our habits over social media was just extraordinary to discover. And, you know, we're still discovering these sorts of things. And we're watching now as the Russians change the playbook. And they're not just using their own bots, but they're using what they call useful idiots. They're finding people in the social media networks who they convince to forward their disinformation. I mean, we just saw and we're starting to learn a lot more about what was going on with the New York Post story with Rudy Giuliani and his work in Ukraine. Any time anyone goes into Ukraine, they have to know that Ukraine, as we say in the film, is Vladimir Putin's petri dish.

SIMON: Is this war, as John McCain termed it a few years ago?

MAGGIO: It is war. David Sanger likes to call it short of war because - have there been any kind of human casualties? Not yet. It's cost a lot of corporations a tremendous amount of money. We saw that go from tens of millions to hundreds of millions of dollars in 2017 with the NotPetya and WannaCry attacks. But that may change, Scott, which is the concern. When we look at the proliferation of 5G networks and we start thinking about things like driverless cars or our air traffic control systems that we run on 5G networks, there could be devastating attacks. And I do wonder if the future of warfare, as it seems, is going to go from boots on the ground to fingers on a keyboard.

SIMON: Your documentary, I think, does raise the question for anybody watching, should we be so interconnected? You know, should we be on the road to having our refrigerators tell us when we're out of milk, when we're, you know, on the other side of the planet and can order it from a service so it'll be delivered when we get back home? I mean, is - do we really want to live this way?

MAGGIO: Well, I think the cat's out of the bag. I mean, I think that's a foregone conclusion. But what I do think we have to think about a lot is conventions around the use of this kind of weaponry. We have it for nuclear weapons. There are Geneva Conventions about traditional conventional warfare. But there's nothing to constrain the use of cyber weapons. And I think, as a world, we need to sort of maybe address that.

SIMON: Mr. Maggio, should we be worried about voting in 2020?

MAGGIO: I think we should always be worried. We should have our guard up. As we see in the film, we have a lot of officials warning a lot about ransomware attacks. You know, what would happen if what has happened in the past to cities like Baltimore, where, you know, they're held hostage? You know, should that happen in this election and we don't get an accurate count, it's only going to add to the chaos.

SIMON: John Maggio has directed the documentary "The Perfect Weapon." It's based on David Sanger's book - now on HBO. Thank you so much for being with us.

MAGGIO: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.