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Chatbots have begun popping up on almost every website, leveraging AI and automation with the goal of improving customer experience. These chatbots are able to direct customers towards an answer for common questions or “take a message” for later, to help them get service faster.

Retailers, software platforms, and nearly every site in between have started to implement chatbots, and some customers really like them. The question is, are these chatbots compromising data privacy and security? How can you get a chatbot online without taking on security risks? Let’s take a closer look.

What are chatbots used for and why?

With more business transactions shifting online where consumers expect “always on” customer service, chatbots are able to fill gaps in agent availability. Chatbots greet customers 24/7, and if a customer interacts with them, they can provide AI-powered answers, route questions to the right agent, and take messages when no agents are available so that the business can reach out to the customer sometime later.

The benefits of chatbots are obvious. With constant availability, chatbots can help capture leads that may otherwise be lost, while also answering queries quickly, which saves customers time and helps agents avoid redundant questions. The automation chatbots can reduce business costs, drive engagement, and even increase revenue.

The question is, are chatbots a threat to data privacy and security? In order to provide a personalized experience and intelligent answers, chatbots often have access to a wealth of personal customer data. Without the right precautions, this could pose a major threat and heighten the risk of key vulnerabilities.

Vulnerabilities associated with chatbots

Any system can have vulnerabilities, which represent a flaw, gap, or unintentional “backdoor” into a system that a hacker can exploit. Oftentimes, vulnerabilities are the result of a poor security plan, weak coding, or a simple user error. No system is entirely hacker-proof, and every software has its weak spots, but businesses should constantly be testing and looking for vulnerabilities and patching them when found.

Some of the vulnerabilities that businesses should look for when implementing a chatbot online include:

  • Lack of encryption when customers are communicating with the chatbot, and when the chatbot is communicating with backend databases.
  • Insufficient protocols and training for employees, which can lead to users unintentionally exposing a backdoor or directly exposing private data.
  • Vulnerabilities with the hosting platform used by the website, chatbot tool, and/or databases that connect to these components.

When these vulnerabilities are discovered by a bad actor, they can be exploited and used to launch an attack against your business.

Threats associated with chatbots

A threat is a one-time event, typically posed by someone with malicious intent who is exploiting a vulnerability. Some examples of threats associated with chatbots include:

  • Malware and ransomware can spread through a company’s systems to expose data or hold it hostage. Attackers can also hack into systems and cause a chatbot to spread malware or ransomware to users’ devices.
  • Data theft is possible if a chatbot does not properly protect customer data using methods like encryption. Data alteration is also possible, which can lead to lost or unusable data.
  • Impersonation and re-purposing of the chatbot is also a major threat as it can lead to customers revealing private data to a hacker while they believe they’re interacting with your business.

For businesses of all sizes, there are always threats associated with bad actors. These threats do not outweigh the benefits of using chatbots, but it is a crucial reminder that all business tools and assets need to be properly secured—especially if they interact with customer data.

How to avoid these issues

The potential vulnerabilities associated with chatbots could come with any business system. In truth, there are many advantages to implementing chatbots, and these potential concerns shouldn’t deter a company from using them but help them prepare so they can minimize the risk of threats. Some of the key ways companies can address potential vulnerabilities and threats include the following.

Use Proper Encryption and Authentication

All business systems should be encrypted “end-to-end,” including chatbots. This method of encryption ensures that no one can see any communications that are taking place except for the sender and the receiver, which should be limited to the chatbot and the person interacting with it. This type of encryption is already being used by WhatsApp and governments because of its efficacy.

In addition to encryption, businesses must also establish proper authentication and authorization procedures to avoid impersonation, re-purposing, and malicious use of their chatbot online.

Establish New Processes and Protocols

Security processes and protocols define how software is developed, encrypted, implemented, connected, and managed over time. They also help control how employees interact with and utilize different systems.

When implemented properly, processes and protocols help bring security plans full-circle, closing vulnerabilities and supporting the identification of existing issues. However, aside from establishing them to be thorough, it’s just as important that businesses ensure proper and continued usage over time.

Educate Your Employees

No matter how much time and money businesses invest in software encryption and security protections, they will still have a major vulnerability to contend with if they fail to properly educate and monitor employee activity.

User error continues to be a primary vulnerability in the world of cyber security, which is why businesses should enforce key processes, offer employee training regularly, and monitor employee activities to ensure they’re adhering to key policies.

When all of those elements come together, businesses will be positioned to make the most of new technologies and software like chatbots without taking on new data privacy and security risks.

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Further reading

Chatbots are everywhere, but do they pose privacy concerns?

Should you add chatbots to your site? How to ensure business security. Read more here
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