A 34-year-old San Francisco man was arraigned on April 11 in federal District Court for the Sept. 17, 2015 hacking of Palo Alto Online and other websites operated by Embarcadero Media.
Ross M. Colby was charged by a federal grand jury in a sealed five-count indictment last Thursday, April 6, following an 18-month investigation by the FBI's Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property unit in San Jose. The indictment was unsealed on April 11.
At the arraignment Colby entered a plea of not guilty, posted a $50,000 bond and was released. He was represented by Palo Alto criminal defense attorney Vicki Young and will appear before U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose for a status conference on May 24.
Colby, of San Francisco, is charged with one felony for intentional damage to a protected computer, another for attempted damage to a protected computer and three misdemeanors for obtaining information from a protected computer. If convicted, the two felonies carry maximum sentences of 10 years imprisonment and $250,000 in fines.
The indictment alleges that Colby gained access to the corporate Google email account of an Embarcadero Media employee in July 2015 and then used information to cancel four domain names and change the company's email exchange records to redirect email.
The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
On the evening of Sept. 17, 2015, all of the websites operated by Embarcadero Media were taken over and all content removed. The home pages were replaced with an image of Guy Fawkes and a message stating the sites had been hacked because Embarcadero had "failed to remove content that has been harmful to the wellbeing and safety of others" and threatened that "Failure to honor all requests to remove content will lead to the permanent shutdown of all Embarcadero Media Group Websites."
The URL header on each website stated: "Unbalanced journalism for profit at the cost of human right. Brought to you by the Almanac."
The Guy Fawkes mask has been associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous.
The Almanac, serving Menlo Park, Portola Valley, Woodside and Atherton, is one of Embarcadero Media's four newspapers. The company, which is headquartered in Palo Alto, also publishes the Palo Alto Weekly, Mountain View Voice, the Pleasanton Weekly and websites in each community.
The company's IT staff was able to regain control over the sites and shut them down within an hour of the hack so they were no longer accessible to the public, but it took almost a full day to restore the content from back-ups and bring the sites back up.
The Palo Alto Police Department conducted a precautionary search of the company's offices at 2 a.m. on the night of the hacking, and the FBI began an immediate investigation and secured company computer records and logs later that day.
According to Embarcadero Media President Bill Johnson, the damage went far beyond the unauthorized access to and seizure of the websites. Many internal company computer records, including all employee user accounts and client account information and billing records, were erased, Johnson said. Fortunately, the company's back-up systems made it possible to restore all the information over the following week.
The indictment offers no clues as to Colby's possible motivation or connection to The Almanac or Embarcadero Media.
Colby attended Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, Massachusetts, his father, John Colby, confirmed Wednesday. He was raised in Athol, Massachusetts, a small town of about 11,300 persons in northwestern Massachusetts.
According to his LinkedIn page, Colby claims to be a software researcher and developer at EMC2, now a subsidiary of Dell Technologies.
Dell EMC has offices throughout the Bay Area, including in the Stanford Research Park, according to its website.
Company spokeswoman Lauren Lee said that Dell does not employ anyone by Colby's name.
Colby could not be reached for comment. His father said on Wednesday that he did not know anything about the indictment or his son's arrest.
Young, Colby's attorney, did not return a request for comment.