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Visualizing The World’s Deadliest Computer Virus

Forget green cyberspace and floating ones and zeros.

How do you tell a story in which a piece of code is the main character?

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That was the main challenge in a newly released virtual reality film, Zero Days VR, which follows the destructive path of Stuxnet–the world’s first real cyber weapon and perhaps the most dangerous piece of code in history. Based on director Alex Gibney’s 2016 documentary Zero Days, the film takes you back to 2010, when a vicious malware thought to be created by the NSA and Israel’s intelligence agency attacked the uranium centrifuges inside a nuclear plant in Iran with the express purpose of preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon (neither the U.S. nor Iran has confirmed the allegation). But the virus didn’t stop there–it quickly spread around the world, showing just how lethal a cyber weapon could be.

[Image: Michael Rigley]
Stuxnet’s discovery, and the political intrigue surrounding it, is the focus of the VR film, which was created by the immersive media studio Scatter and has now won several awards. Scatter collaborated with Gibney on the documentary when he used the studio’s 3D scanning tool, DepthKit, to create an amalgamated character representing several NSA informants who spoke to the filmmaker. And since the actress playing the NSA informant had already been filmed in 3D, the studio decided to translate the documentary into virtual reality, with Gibney’s blessing and journalistic oversight.

But translating a documentary full of archival footage and talking heads into virtual reality is a serious challenge–especially when your main character is a piece of code. So Zero Days VR’s director, Yasmin Elayat, turned to the designer and animator Michael Rigley to come up with a concept for what the malicious virus might look like.

“We didn’t want to do the overused visual digital language, with ones and zeros, code that’s green,” Rigley says. “We tried to develop a new language for it. We wanted it to feel both organic and computational at the same time, almost corrosive.”

[Image: Michael Rigley]
His concept for the virus looks like a malignant force sweeping through a pixelated, ambiguous backdrop that’s meant to represent the expanse of digital infrastructure. The visualization of Stuxnet moves through this framework like a fire, with red probing arms that comb through the digital world, searching for its targets. It looks like a menacing, organic creature on a mission.

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To bring it to life in the VR film, the team built the animation in code–and it generates live as you’re watching. “We built an algorithm for Stuxnet,” she says. “It was a true conversion of content and method. It’s code representing code.”

Elayat, who studied computer science in college, says that during the process of writing the script for the VR film, she became utterly fascinated with Stuxnet. “This thing became a character to me, this well-trained soldier that was on a different level,” she says. “It’s so precise. It was not messy at all, it was very subtle and it took its time, and it worked autonomously. When it was out in the world, you didn’t know what it was doing.”

[Image: Michael Rigley]
The film depicts Stuxnet weaving through cyberspace and destroying Iranian uranium centrifuges, but it also shows the retaliation–an Iranian cyber army that coordinated a DDoS attack against U.S. infrastructure, targeting financial institutions. “With intent, they move together like a tornado, they fly down and attack the American digital infrastructure,” Elayat says, describing how the VR film visualizes the cyber army’s attacks. “The army has a character, they feel like an organism.”

[Image: Michael Rigley]
Such an attack occurred last month, as hackers hit more than 73 countries with what is now being called the largest ransomware attack in history, taking down computers in hospitals in the United Kingdom and Russia’s Interior Ministry, according to the New York Times (the U.S. escaped relatively unscathed). The kicker? The hackers used a tool stolen from the NSA–the same place Stuxnet is thought to have originated.

Since the United States is such a connected country, it’s particularly vulnerable to cyber attacks, and Elayat hopes that the film and documentary help people understand just how vital cybersecurity is and will be in the future. The NSA informant character, whose testimony points to the NSA and Israeli intelligence agency as the creators of Stuxnet, says that Stuxnet is the tip of the iceberg. “There’s no way to put the weapon back in the box,” Elayat says. “That’s the stakes. It’s a bit scary to hear, but we thought it was critical.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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