‘Fate of the Furious': What Exactly is Cipher’s ‘Zero Day’ Car Hack?

Supervillain Cipher uses “zero days” to take control of cars remotely in “The Fate of the Furious” — but what is a zero day, and how does it work?

The villainous Cipher (Charlize Theron) isn’t just a criminal mastermind in “The Fate of the Furious.” She’s also a super-smart hacker with a team of programmers at her disposal.

The hacking team’s capabilities become a major part of the “Fate of the Furious” plot at a key moment. That’s when Cipher orders her team to search for chips with “zero day exploits” in New York as she’s sending Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) to chase down the Russian Secretary of Defense’s motorcade. To clear the way, Cipher and her hackers remotely control a huge number of cars, crashing them into traffic and blocking the motorcade’s escape.

But what exactly is a “zero day?”

In technology security speak, “zero day” actually refers to two different things, as Wired reports: both a “zero day vulnerability” and a “zero day exploit.” In both cases, “zero day” is hackerspeak for a hole in software security that hackers can use to get into a program and do whatever it is they want to do.

A zero day vulnerability refers to a way for hackers to gain access to a piece of software — it’s a hole the programmers didn’t realize was there. A zero day exploit is the software the hackers have created to take advantage of the vulnerability: it’s the hidden hacker software left in the main program that can do things like gather information or take control of systems.

The zero day part of the name is about how many days it’s been since the creators of the software have become aware of the vulnerability. Zero day, then, means the vulnerability hasn’t been discovered by the software creators.

So in “Fate of the Furious,” when Cipher calls for her team to look for zero days, she wants her team to look for cars with software vulnerabilities that have already been discovered. It suggests that, off-screen, Cipher or her team wrote malware programs to hack into the cars with this specific zero day vulnerability for just such an occasion as the mission in the movie. Then they upload their software into the cars, allowing them to control them remotely.

That’s a pretty simplified version of what would actually be required to control a thousand cars in New York simultaneously. Would it even be possible?

Not given the cars we have today, according to Brian Louden from Science Channel’s New MythBusters, who spoke to TheWrap about this and other outlandish stunts in “The Fate of the Furious.” Or at least, only if Cipher was controlling a city full of Teslas. Most of today’s self-driving cars aren’t equipped for that much driving. A Tesla has the cameras and sensors necessary to be driven a lot, but most current cars with self-driving technology can only manage simple things, like parallel parking. Sending them driving themselves through a city would be impossible.

With some planning, though, Cipher might be able to pull the scene off. It’d just take a lot more work and time than in the film.

“There are 1,500 Teslas in Manhattan right now,” said Louden. “If you plan it, if you put some work into it, there’s no reason why you couldn’t have an army of Tesla cars taking over Manhattan.”

But hey, the “Fast & Furious” movies have never been too hung up in technical details, especially when it comes to hacking. What matters is that a whole lot of cars crash for an awesome action scene.