NATO’s most senior military official has come under a concerted cyber attack from hackers believed to be operating from the People’s Republic of China.
The Observer reported on Sunday that cyber fiends had targeted Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) Admiral James Stavridis by opening fake Facebook accounts in his name in an attempt to trick colleagues, friends and family into giving away his personal secrets on the social network.
Social engineering via platforms such as Facebook can be one of the early stages of an advanced persistent threat (APT), the latest buzz word on the information security scene and a technique commonly linked to cyber spies operating from China.
As such, the attackers may have been looking for information they could use to guess Stavridis’ email or other log-in credentials which they could subsequently use to infiltrate NATO systems and steal sensitive military information.
NATO confirmed to the paper that Stavridis had been targeted several times in the same way over the past two years, with Facebook co-operating in taking down the offending fake SACEUR pages.
Although NATO itself said it wasn’t clear who was responsible for the cyber snooping attempt, the Observer spoke to “security sources” who had no hesitation in blaming China.
"The most senior people in Nato were warned about this kind of activity. The belief is that China is behind this," one of them is quoted as saying. One possible reason why the hackers decided to use Facebook as its initial attack vector is that Stavridis is an avid social media user and, unusually considering his senior position, is pretty vocal on Facebook.
In October, for example, he announced the end of NATO operations in Libya via his Facebook page.
While the attack has some of the hallmarks of a state-sponsored espionage attempt, it does appear somewhat less sophisticated than some of the APT-style attacks which have come to light in recent years.
These include Operation Aurora, which targeted Google and scores of other western firms, as well as Operation Night Dragon, the series of attacks on global energy firms in 2011.
Despite its protestations of innocence, the People’s Republic has time and again been singled out by officials in the UK and US as one of the main actors in cyber space when it comes to state-sponsored snooping.
Just last week US defence contractor Northrop Grumman released a 136-page report which pointed to China arming its military with information warfare capabilities which could prove a “genuine risk” to US military operations. ®
Updated to Add
Since publication of this article, Facebook spokespersons have been in touch to say:
We removed the profile for violating our terms within a business day of receiving a report.