Seven Iranian computer specialists with ties to Tehran have been charged by U.S. prosecutors with launching cyberattacks that cost banks millions of dollars, the Justice Department announced Thursday.
One of the hackers was also accused of infiltrating the computers of a small dam in New York. He would have been able to control the dam's gates had they not been disconnected from the facility's computer network at the time of the intrusion, officials said.
"These attacks were relentless, and they were widespread," U.S. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch said at a news conference announcing the charges. "They threatened our economic well-being and our ability to compete fairly in the marketplace -- both of which are directly linked to our national security."
Two years ago similar federal charges were filed against five members of the Chinese military, whom the U.S. accused of stealing trade secrets from U.S. companies. Justice Department officials have said that such charges send a message that the U.S. government will not tolerate state-sponsored cyber attacks on U.S. businesses or organizations.
The three-count indictment against the Iranians, filed in January in New York City and unsealed Thursday, alleged that the seven men worked for two computer companies in Iran -- ITSecTeam and Mersad Co. -- that performed work on behalf of the government and its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In 2011 and 2012, the hackers allegedly launched concerted denial-of-service attacks on several U.S. financial institutions, including Bank of America, Citibank and the New York Stock Exchange. Such attacks involve blasting computer servers with so much data that they have difficulty processing legitimate transactions.
Federal prosecutors said the attacks disabled websites and prevented customers from accessing their accounts.
One of the hackers also slipped into the computer system of the Bowman Dam, in Rye, N.Y., about 30 miles north of New York City. The 2013 hack would have allowed the Iranian, identified as Hamid Firoozi, 34, to remotely operate the dam's sluice gates if they had been connected to the system.
"That access would have given him the ability to control water levels and flow rates, an outcome that could have posed a clear and present danger to the public health and safety of Americans," Lynch said.
The United States will have a hard time getting its hands on the Iranians, whose government is unlikely to hand them over for prosecution. Even so, federal authorities said the indictment sent a strong message to those who might ponder committing such crimes.
"The world is small, and our memories are long," said FBI Director James B. Comey.
The indictment was filed a week after Tehran released four long-held American prisoners, including a Washington Post reporter, and eight months after Iran and six other nations, including the United States, reached a deal that the White House says will block the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The other accused hackers were identified as Ahmad Fathi, 37; Amin Shokohi, 25; Sadegh Ahmadzadegan, 23; Omid Ghaffarinia, 25; Sina Keissar, 25; and Nader Saedi, 26.