Chatbot Security – What You Need To Know

While face-to-face human interaction seems less common, we’re much more inclined to talk to our tech. From Siri to Alexa, the machines are starting to answer back. Now, the commercial sector has recognised the potential inherent in Chatbot services and is incorporating them into their own networks, creating a more efficient and user-friendly customer experience across multiple platforms.

However, there is one key issue – Chatbot security. As with any messaging platform, ensuring data that’s shared with a Chatbot remains secure is of paramount importance. So, how can businesses ensure their Chatbot isn’t chatting away to the wrong people?

We’ll attempt to answer this question by taking a look at what Chatbots are, their role in business, the main threats to their security, and what measures you can put in place to minimise risk to both your business and your customers’ data.

What are Chatbots?

Chatbots are, in simple terms, an extension of existing Human Interface Mediums (HIMs), such as mobile phones and the internet.

They let customers interact with a service provider (e.g. a bank, online shopping catalogue, or public utility) via an artificial messenger or ‘bot’. Many of the current generation of Chatbots can respond to more complex questions orally too – you just have to look at the growing popularity of AI assistants like the Amazon home hub bot Alexa to recognise that voice is becoming an increasingly important feature of chatbot technology.

Chatbots in the commercial sector have moved well beyond the ‘Press one for admin’ automated phone response and, thanks to fledgeling AI, are now interacting with customers on a far more personalised level. In fact, it’s often difficult to tell whether you’re talking to a Chatbot or a real person. This has resulted in some concerns as to the security of such technology. Fortunately, chatbot security specialists are way ahead of the curve.

Chatbot Security – What You Need To Know
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The use of Chatbots in the commercial sector

Gartner, the prestigious global research firm, has predicted that approximately 85% of all customer service interactions will be processed via chatbot by the end of 2020. As the technology is often used to collect personal data and bots typically have access to a large knowledge base, some commentators are concerned that the technology could be targeted by malicious actors.

Despite this, big businesses have adopted Chatbots with open arms, incorporating them into both their automated response systems and social media platforms. Facebook, SMS, WhatsApp, and WeChat are all being prepared for greater Chatbot use and future customer service tech is expected to be predominantly chat-based.

But it’s not as simple as building a bot and sending it out to interact with anyone who happens across it. All businesses have a legal responsibility to ensure the safety of personal information, no matter how that data is transferred, stored, or collected. With the introduction of GDPR, this responsibility is more explicit than ever.

While the most secure means of safeguarding your chatbot and fulfilling your legal obligations is to employ the help of chatbot professionals, it’s also a good idea to have a thorough understanding of the threats, concerns, safeguards and counter-measures yourself. With this in mind, we’ll begin by looking at the potential risks associated with the technology.

An overview of Chatbot security risks

All chatbot security risks can be grouped into one of two categories:

  1. Threats: Threats are one-off events, including malware and DDoS attacks. Business-specific targeted attacks can result in you being locked out of your system and held to ransom. Alternatively, hackers can threaten to expose (supposedly) secure customer data.
  2. Vulnerabilities. Vulnerabilities are cracks in the system that offer cybercriminals a way into your system and compromise your security. They typically occur due to weak coding, poor safeguards, or user error. All systems have weak spots – there hasn’t yet been a system that is entirely ‘hack-proof’. However, chatbot security specialists are constantly updating the technology’s defences, ensuring that any cracks are sealed as soon as they are discovered.

Threats and vulnerabilities go hand in hand, they’re two sides of the same coin. In other words, threats take advantage of vulnerabilities to do damage.

Specific Chatbot security risks

If you look more closely at the various security risks, you’ll find that they’re diverse and difficult to protect against without expert help. They include:

Threats

  • Impersonation of individuals
  • Ransomware
  • Malware
  • Data-theft
  • Data alterations
  • Re-purposing of bots by hackers
  • Phishing
  • Whaling

Vulnerabilities

  • Unencrypted communications
  • Back-door access by hackers
  • Lack of HTTP protocol
  • Absence of security protocols for employees
  • Hosting platform issues
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How to combat threats and vulnerabilities by securing Chatbots

There are four main ways in which you can combat threats and vulnerabilities in your chatbot technology.

  1. Encryption
  2. Authentication and authorisation
  3. Processes and protocols
  4. Education

We’ll now take a look at each of these in greater detail.

Encryption

End-to-End encryption:

This stops anyone other than the sender and recipient seeing any part of the message. This is being widely adopted by Chatbot designers and is without a doubt one of the most robust methods of ensuring Chatbot security. It’s a key feature of chat services like WhatsApp and large tech developers have been keen to guarantee the security of such encryption, even when challenged by national governments.

This type of encryption is particularly relevant to fulfilling your legal obligations under GDPR, which includes the stipulation that “it is specifically required that companies take measures to de-identify and encrypt personal data.”

Chatbot Security – What You Need To Know

Authentication and Authorisation

Chatbots use two main security processes – authentication (user identity verification) and authorisation (granting permission for a user to access a portal or carry out a certain task). The most effective defensive security measures utilise both authentication and authorisation. Specific measures include:

  • Biometric authentication: Iris scans and fingerprint scans are increasingly popular and, thanks to developments in biometrics in general, are much more robust.
  • Two-factor authentication: Users are required to verify their identity through two separate channels. This is pretty ‘old school’, but sometimes tried and tested methods like this are the best form of defence. Two-factor authentication is still used by many financial institutions, including banks.
  • User ID: the most familiar method of security to the average digital customer. User IDs involve creating secure login credentials, including passwords that are not pet’s names or just the word ‘password!’
  • Authentication Timeouts: A ‘ticking clock’ for correct authentication input can prevent repeated attempts by hackers to try and guess their way into a secure account.

Processes and Protocols

The default setting for any security system is the HTTPS protocol. Even if you’re not in the IT department of your business, you’ll recognise this as the start of any secure URL in your search bar.

As long as your IT security teams are ensuring your data is being transferred over HTTP through encrypted connections protected by Transport Layer Security (TLS) or Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), then there shouldn’t be any problems. This should keep any potential back-door to your business system tightly shut.

The key thing to remember with Chatbot security is that while Chatbots are relatively new, the protocols, systems and coding used to protect them is almost identical to that in existing HIMs. They interact across platforms that already have their own internal security systems and, from the outset, there is more than one layer of encryption and security to protect users.

Education

There is one security vulnerability that is remarkably difficult to mitigate against – human error. With commercial applications in particular, user behaviour has to be addressed. Otherwise, the system is fundamentally flawed.

Though the importance of digital security is recognised by an increasing number of users, humans are still the weakest link in the system. Chatbot security will continue to be a problem until the issue of user error ceases to exist. This will require widespread education on how digital technologies like Chatbots can be used securely.

It’s not just customers who pose a problem though. Employees are just as likely to make a mistake. To counter this danger, your chatbot development strategy should include developers and IT experts training your operatives on how to use the system securely. Not only does this enhance your team’s skill set, but it also gives them the confidence to engage with the Chatbot system securely.

Customers cannot be ‘trained’ in the same way as your staff, but they can be given a roadmap detailing how to interact with the system safely. This may involve bringing on board other professionals, such as copywriters, who can create informative newsletters, online content or direct digital mailouts that engage customers and inform them of the right way to interact with your Chatbots.

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Emerging methods

Several emerging security technologies that are likely to play a key role in securing Chatbots against threats in the future. Chief amongst these are behaviour analytics and improved AI.

User Behavioural Analytics (UBA) – UBA is the process by which applications study patterns of user and human behaviour. This allows them to apply statistical analysis and complex algorithms to detect abnormal or unusual behaviour that could represent a security threat. As analytical tools become increasingly powerful, UBA is likely to become a major component in Chatbot security systems.

Developments in AI – In the world of cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence is often considered both a threat and an effective means of defence. However, as AI begins to fulfil its potential, it will likely be leveraged to provide a layer of security that far surpasses those measures currently available to us. This is largely due to its ability to scour vast amounts of data for statistical anomalies that identify security threats or breaches.

How can your security measures be tested?

While the only truly secure way of safeguarding your chatbot technology is to allow experienced designers and security specialists to test and improve the bot’s performance, there are several security tests that can be performed to assess the integrity of your technology. They include:

Penetration testing – Penetration testing is a way of testing a system or technology for vulnerabilities. Sometimes referred to as ‘ethical hacking,’ it is either performed manually by talented cybersecurity experts or automated by software applications.

API security testing – There are a number of tools out there for you to check the integrity of your Application Programming Interface (API). However, security specialists typically have access to up-to-date software and information that will help them identify vulnerabilities that others can’t.

Comprehensive UX testing – An intelligently designed technology typically results in a good user experience. If you’re looking to test the security of your chatbot, it’s a good idea to carry out your own user experience test. How does it feel to engage with your chatbot? Does it behave in the way you expected? Are there any clear and obvious faults?

Chatbot Security – What You Need To Know

Chatbots – as secure as you make them

In reality, Chatbots are much like any other digital technology – they are only as secure as you make them. Though there’s the potential for them to be used as a backdoor by hackers, if you’re willing to invest appropriately they’re as safe and secure as any other customer-facing technology. While it’s important to take a cautious approach, chatbots should not be perceived as a particularly vulnerable technology.

As with all new digital tech, illegal actors will try and find weaknesses and those designing and building Chatbots will respond by improving defences. Chatbot technology is now mature enough that security specialists understand where it is vulnerable and how we can best protect against exploitation. While nothing can compare to the level of security provided by those who are experts in the field, our guide should have provided you with some insight into the processes used to safeguard your chatbot services.

What Next?

Chatbots are an exciting and innovative development in customer service technology and AI, with the potential to revolutionise the way businesses interact with their customers. The technology represents a giant step forward for customer service provision – it’s a user-friendly portal that makes the most of already-familiar technology, it offers a more personalised experience, and provides a faster response to customer queries. However, they also pose a number of important security questions. If not properly protected, they’re a potential back-door for those looking to harvest valuable personal data or access secure systems.

Robust and comprehensive, multi-layer security is a must. Chatbot security allows businesses to safely deliver a real 21st-Century shop front to a tech-savvy customer base who are now demanding chat-based interactions across a wide variety of platforms. If the proper security measures are taken, a chatbot is a safe application that can drastically improve the customer experience, allow organisations to cut costs, and present a valuable opportunity to automate high-volume customer enquiries.

Our chatbot services represent the latest step in a 30-year journey that’s defined by ceaseless innovation. Capable of automating 90% of website enquiries and more than 50% of telephone enquiries, they are now being successfully deployed across both the public and private sectors, in a diverse array of operational contexts. Call us on 01344 595800 or drop us a line to find out more.