Chinese spies created a fake Facebook profile of US Navy admiral James Stavridis and used it to cosy up to his colleagues around the world.
Stavridis is Commander, US European Command, and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), in charge of all US forces in Europe. He's an enthusiastic user of Facebook via his genuine account, using it to announce last year that the US military campaign in Libya was at an end.
In a classic social engineering attack, the spies were able to friend Defense Ministry officials, British military officers and other government figures. They will have gained access to personal information such as email addresses, phone numbers and the names of family members.
There's no information on how many of Stavridis' contacts fell for the scam, nor on what information could have been harvested. But the attackers may have gleaned information on Stavridis' movements. They may also have been hoping to learn, say, dates of birth and names that would enable them to guess passwords and access confidential NATO information.
NATO has refused to confirm the source of the impersonation. However, sources have told the Observer that China was to blame, and that similar attacks took place on several occasions.
"The most senior people in Nato were warned about this kind of activity," the source said. "The belief is that China is behind this."
The attack took place before Facebook's introduction last month of verified accounts for public figures. Facebook's since removed the offending pages, and NATO has instructed top officials to create genuine Facebook accounts to make it harder for fraudsters in future.