A 28-page indictment, handed down in federal court in Alexandra, Va., charged the men with one count of "conspiracy to intentionally cause damage to a protected computer" during an online attack campaign that included such targets as the websites of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the U.S. Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, as well as Visa, MasterCard and Bank of America.
According to the indictment, the attacks were carried out under the banner of Operation Payback -- aka "Operation: Payback Is A Bitch" -- and were first launched to target anti-piracy organizations in the United States, as well as Australia, Britain, France, the Netherlands and other countries. The attacks later expanded to target organizations that were perceived to be hostile to WikiLeaks, such as Visa and MasterCard, which blocked the flow of funds to the whistle-blowing website after it began posting secret U.S. diplomatic cables.
[ How far can the FBI go with suspected computer criminals? Read Stratfor Hacker: FBI Entrapment Shaped My Case. ]
The Operation Payback attack campaign ran from September 2010 through January 2011. PayPal, which was also targeted -- but not cited in the indictment -- has said it suffered losses of $5.6 million as a result.
The 13 men charged -- along with some of the nicknames the indictment said they used online -- include: Thomas J. Bell, Zhiwei Chen ("Jack," "TickL"), Joshua S. Phy ("Anonyjosh"), Dennis Owen Collins ("iowa," "anon5"), Geoffrey Kenneth Commander ("jake," "bipto") Ryan Russell Gubele ("grishnav"), Jeremy Leroy Heller ("heelgea"), Timothy Robert McClain, Austen L. Stamm ("user_x"), Phillip Garrett Simpson ("jikbag"), Anthony Tadros ("Winslow"), Robert Audubon Whitfield ("mightymooch"), and Wade Carl Williams ("TheMiNd").
According to the indictment, the men "[engaged] in a coordinated series of cyber-attacks against victim websites by flooding those websites with a huge volume of irrelevant Internet traffic with the intent to make the resources on the websites unavailable to customers and users of those websites" -- meaning they launched distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks. Williams was also accused of linking to an online site that listed the names, home address and phone number of the Bank of America CEO, as well as his wife, for harassment purposes.
The indictment said all 13 men used the DDoS attack tool known as Low Orbit Ion Cannon. The tool was originally distributed to Anonymous members with the promise that it could be used to launch one-click attacks against targets of the operator's choosing. During Operation Payback, target lists were detailed online -- including on IRC message boards -- so LOIC operators could join in.
Unbeknownst to less technically sophisticated LOIC users, however, was the fact that when the tool generated a stream of packets -- designed, en masse, to overwhelm a targeted site -- it would code the IP address of the attacker's computer into the packet stream unless the operator proactively disguised their IP address. As a result, PayPal and other attacked organizations were reportedly able to turn over log files that listed the IP addresses that had attacked them. In short order, the FBI began subpoenaing service providers and tying IP addresses to subscribers' identities.
These aren't the first charges to be filed against alleged Operation Payback participants, either in the United States or abroad. British authorities, for example, arrested four men in 2011 on charges of participating in a group called both "Nerdo" and "NikonElite," which targeted digital entertainment industry companies and later participated in Operation Payback attacks.
Three of those men pleaded guilty, while the fourth -- Christopher Wetherhead -- was found guilty in Dec. 2012 of one count of conspiracy to commit unauthorized acts with intent to impair the operation of a computer, in violation of Britain's 1990 Computer Misuse Act. British investigators said they'd identified the men after studying Anonymous IRC logs.
According to some legal experts, British authorities have tended to prosecute the organizers behind the Operation Payback attacks, while U.S. prosecutors have tended to pursue not just the organizers, but anyone who downloaded and used LOIC to join in the attacks.