Netwars/out of CTRL: an interview with producer Michael Grotenhoff

Recommended at Sheffield DocFest by keynote Rob Tercek, Netwars/Out of Ctrl is an interactive web series that explores the possibilities of cyberwarfare and our own, personal relationship with the web. I spoke to the project producer Michael Grotenhoff about his inspirations for the project, the process of production and how it’s been received so far…

What prompted you to make Netwars in the first place and why did you choose to include an interactive experience?

In 2007, I shot a TV documentary about the rising problem of cybercrime. During the shooting, I witnessed the first case of cyberwarfare – a serious attack on the IT-infrastructure of Estonia. A political conflict between Russia and Estonia was the ultimate reason behind it. Russian hackers started attacking the online banking system and the emergency call network of the Estonian government website. They managed to disturb the digital backbone of the very IT-related country of Estonia in a fatally serious and scary manner. The IP addresses of this hacker attack were traced back to the Kremlin, and the Estonian government was kind of shocked. It was a new era of where political conflicts were heading and cyberwarfare tools for the very first time, became a real and public weapon for conducting real-time conflicts.

That was really striking for me as a journalist. I reported on the case and was in Estonia shortly after the attacks had taken place. I quickly started to realize that cyberwarfare is something really dangerous and something extremely real and that cyber attacks could now take part in many conflicts between countries. This is the initial reason why I kept myself busy learning more about the subject matter. I continuously followed up on cyberwarfare stories and then started to develop “netwars/out of CTRL”.

Though cyberwarefare stories were growing and growing, it still felt abstract and rather far away from daily life.

In 2011, Stuxnet was the first digital weapon that managed to shut down the Iranian nuclear program. And this was again a game-changer in how countries dealt with political conflicts. But yet the reaction was not very strong and people still thought – well that sort of stuff doesn´t affect the ordinary person´s daily life. But that´s not true because modern society is built on digital infrastructures. We have digital DNA, everything is connected, critical infrastructures is everywhere and we are all, every single one of us, is highly vulnerable.

It was the ideal approach to make the netwars/out of CTRL interactive and to show users: “Hey, you are right in the middle of what’s happening!

I wanted to show that everyone who uses modern IT-based tools is caught in this net of interconnectedness. We are all part of it.  It was the ideal approach to make the netwars/out of CTRL interactive and to show users: “Hey, you are right in the middle of what´s happening! Feel it and see it – we are creeping onto your own computer. This is real!!”

That was our drive in making “netwars” interactive and also rather emotional. To wake people up and say – “Hey! This is a serious problem! And you can not ignore it any longer!”

That was also the motivation to create the “Salesman” an ambiguous figure one can interact with. He has real roots. It’s a new and very real profession – someone dealing new digital armament…

There’s so many different elements to the project – the web documentary, TV documentary, graphic novel, e-book and TV series – is there a part of it that you feel is the main focus and how have all they all worked together?

Every platform can stand on its own, but each part is also interconnected. It´s ok for users to hop from one platform to the next, because each platform offers you a different angle to the topic.

The TV doc shows a serious status quo – just how vulnerable our digital infrastructure is. The red line is an exclusive hack, a so-called “Stresstest” into an energy supplier. We prove for the very first time in front of the camera just how easy it is for a hacker to shut down power, water supply and energy supply. And that it´s possible – anytime, and anywhere. And that it can cause big troubles, in which a chain reaction can be triggered.

The interactive webdoc goes one step further: we bring cyberwarfare onto your very own personal laptop computer. We show you that you are right in the middle of it. You too can be part of a botnet and an attack of an infrastructure. We manage to capture your computer and you have absolutely no clue as to what is going on. Our intentions were to personalize the experience, and to give the experience an emotional edge. You also meet our “Salesman”. And he is a very, very scary person…

The graphic novel takes users into the next stage: we fictionalize the story. We create a kind of worst-case scenario. But still everything we tell is possible, politically and technically. The entire story is double checked and backed by scientists and IT-experts. It´s no weird science fiction.

Everything is made for tablets and pushes the boundaries of interactive storytelling for the next generation.

The basic idea was to target a certain audience and to engage them by using a tech thriller genre and to pull them into the story in this way. Users can interact with protagonists and can dive deeper into the facts if they want to explore. These facts are background information and are part of the graphic novel. You can use them if you want, but you need not to. You can simulate hacks to get a feeling of what it means to hack a power plant for example. Everything is made for tablets and pushes the boundaries of interactive storytelling for the next generation.

Screen shot 2014-06-16 at 12.10.04

The main focus was to engage and pull in different target groups into this very important topic, and to make it feel as real as the true danger is.

The fictional narrator is certainly effective, what made you incorporate this element?

Fiction gives you the possibility to go into the future, to “play with different scenarios”. But what was really important for us was to do it in an entertaining way without loosing the main focus of informing our audience about the rising problem of cyberwarfare and it´s possible consequences. Our “Salesman” gives this abstract cyberwarfare menace an actual face. You can hate him. You can admire him. You can try to ignore him. But in in the end he will catch you!

Some of the interactive elements are really clever, I was particularly taken by the section where files were downloaded to my computer. What was the inspiration for them? What was the design process?

We worked closely together with some very experienced programmers. It was a work in progress developing the different steps of interactivity and personalisation. We put a lot of brainpower into solving the challenges of not making everything so limited. We didn’t want to exclude people by building up high technical barriers for example – only having a Facebook connect entry. That would have given us much more opportunities to gather personal data, but that would have also excluded a lot of potential users right from the start, because you loose a lot if you set up an entry level like this. So we decided to use only data people typically offer just by “entering the internet”, using a web browser or using a certain device.

Just to be clear – gathering this data is completely legal and voluntary on the user end. The challenge was to show users what can be done with this sort of data. And it’s a lot, I can tell you! So we invented this drive by download section to simply show you that it is pretty easy to smuggle a Trojan onto your computer, just by surfing the “wrong website”. The effect is pretty impressive. People become scared.

But again just to be clear – We don’t do anything illegal, we don’t smuggle anything onto you computer, we just show users how easy it can all be achieved by just setting up an engaging quiz.

Screen shot from Netwars/Out of CTRL: data downloaded onto my computer

Screen shot from Netwars/Out of CTRL: data downloaded onto my computer

Let talk analytics – how have users responded? Are they staying to the end or returning for second visits?

We are very, very impressed in how users have responded. It has all been extremely positive. Users are staying to the end and are returning for second visits. Until now  we have had well over a million unique page views. We have over 100,000 interactive sessions. People interact with the story nearly 13 min. (average duration of an interactive session). And the bounce rate is also really good. Under 15 Percent. So we are really happy!

 What was the budget for the project? How was it funded and where do you go from here? Will the project be sustained or expand in the future or are there other areas you’d like to tackle?

 The overall budget for the entire project was nearly 1 millon euros. We cannot dive too deep into the detailed budget, but it’s a challenge for us, and we have – beside crossmedia-funding and funding from TV stations, a big part comes from our own investment. The business model is new, we are building a new infrastructure, selling the app and the ebook series allows us to directly build a customer relationship.

 Beside crossmedia-funding and funding from TV stations, a big part comes from our own investment.

It is a very important step for us, finding new businessmodels, reducing dependance on broadcasters and partnering with new business partners like publishers. And finally: what is also very, very important for us is building up a brand, our own IP, which has a longer shelf life than a documentary which will be broadcasted. We serialize “netwars”, that´s a core part of the business model. To establish “netwars” as an international  brand with a potentially long lasting life.

If you could have been asked one more question, what would it have been?

Do you regret making “netwars”? Would you do it again?

Yes! I would! Definitely! And the next time we will face the same challenges, but it is and was worth doing it! And it has already paid off! Not necessarily in terms of re-financing it immediately (we know this is a long-term objective) but in terms of telling stories in a completely different manner, opening up our possibilities and changing our approach in how we do our work.

That’s fantastic and we are now on a new “path” – without wanting to ever return….

If you missed Netwars/Out of Ctrl at Sheffield Docfest, you can still experience it online here – take time to work through the episodes, it’s definitely worth it!