Artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots have emerged as a leading innovation across multiple industries, from health care to banking to hospitality. These AI-powered assistants can enhance customer service, boost efficiency, perform tasks 24/7 and save business resources.

But the chatbot explosion has also created a new playground for hackers, raising concerns over chatbot security. Don’t let the lure of innovation compromise your data.

AI chatbot risks

Here are some typical ways cybercriminals exploit chatbots:

  • Chatbot phishing: Hackers can exploit trust in chatbots by creating fake but realistic chatbots that mimic legitimate chatbots. Or they can take over legitimate chatbots to conduct phishing attacks. They trick users into revealing sensitive information that could enable unauthorized transactions.
  • Data interception and eavesdropping: Hackers can intercept and steal sensitive information transferred between your company and a chatbot.
  • Exploiting software vulnerabilities: If a chatbot has a software vulnerability, hackers could use it to gain unauthorized access to the bot’s network. This can enable all sorts of illegal activities, including bank transactions. Out-of-the-box solutions may lack cybersecurity, including standard administrative panel access usually known to hackers.
  • Mass data collection: A chatbot not designed with privacy in mind could also collect too much personal data or store it insecurely. An attacker could access and misuse this data.

Before deploying a chatbot, deploy your cybersecurity plan

Start your cybersecurity journey by conducting a risk assessment.

  • Map and identify your points of weakness.
  • Hire a data protection officer or consult a cybersecurity expert.
  • Train your employees to recognize and handle scams like social engineering.
  • Review and update your cybersecurity protocols often.
  • Stay on top of the latest cyber threats to identify and manage emerging risks.

If you don’t already have a cybersecurity program, delay using chatbots until you have one. The risks of hacking, lawsuits from data theft, and financial losses will probably outweigh the benefits of having a chatbot.

Create a cybersecurity strategy

A cybersecurity strategy that defends against attacks is critical to every business risk management plan. If you’re using chatbots, here are some recommended protocols:

Encrypt your data

Use secure encryption protocols to protect the information exchanged between users and chatbots. Encryption transforms data into a code only authorized parties can access and decipher. You should encrypt data while it’s in transit and while it’s being stored on your servers or cloud platforms. You can use a combination of protocols and tools to secure your chatbot’s data during different stages, such as:

  • SSL (secure sockets layer) and TLS (transport layer security) are cryptographic protocols that protect communication between two systems over a network. They encrypt data during transit to prevent hackers from eavesdropping on your data and tampering with your systems.
  • HTTPS (hypertext transfer protocol secure) is an HTTP protocol that works with SSL or TLS to provide encryption. Having HTTPS on websites using a chatbot is critical to data protection.
  • AES (advanced encryption standard) is an encryption algorithm that secures your data while it’s in storage or during transmission. AES is recognized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for data encryption.

Establish data protection policies

Implement data protection, privacy policies, and practices to handle data securely and comply with regulations, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA). These can include techniques like data pseudonymization and anonymization.

Pseudonymization is where the entity controlling the data must delink the identity and store it separately. Like a pseudonym, the identifying data is given fake names. The identifying data is separated and stored, so it can’t be relinked or pieced back together. It can only be relinked when authorized by the entity controlling the data. This process does not permanently modify the data, making it possible to identify personal data. For this reason, pseudonymized data is subject to the GDPR.

On the other hand, data anonymization permanently transforms personal data by removing personal identifiers. This makes it impossible to determine who an individual is from the rest of the data. Data anonymization is an irreversible process. Because it removes all indirect and direct ways of identifying personal information, it is not subject to the GDPR.

Both data protection techniques are complex processes with many rules. Use an experienced team to create a data protection policy compliant with national and international laws.

Develop an incident response plan

You should also develop a written cyber incident response plan, one that can handle any cybersecurity breach. Enlist your IT team for help and train your employees on what to do if you’re hacked. You can also contact your regional Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) office for a range of cyber and physical services to support your cybersecurity journey. (Pro tip: A written incident response plan will also make your cyber liability insurance application more desirable to insurers.)

Authenticate and control access to data

Use authentication and access control measures to guard against unauthorized access and actions. An example is two-factor authentication.

Perform regular updates and patching

Keep your chatbot software up to date and apply security patches as soon as they’re released.

Create a secure software development lifecycle

Ensure your IT team embeds security checks throughout software development and deployment. Before going live with your chatbot, they should detect and address any vulnerabilities.

Don’t overcollect data

If your chatbot asks users too many personal questions and stores those responses without rigorous security measures, you could be an attractive mark for hackers. Only collect the data you need in a chatbot, and then securely encrypt it.

Conduct third-party audit and penetration testing

Schedule recurring third-party security audits and penetration testing to identify software vulnerabilities. Or you can use CISA’s free list of cybersecurity services and tools to jump-start your cyber-risk management.

Review your strategy with your lawyer, IT team and insurance agent

Cybersecurity is a commitment to your business, customers, employees, and vendors. Chatbots are like any software. They require time, resources, and ongoing vigilance, but they’re worth the effort. Your IT team can help you identify initial pain points and provide invaluable advice on setting up your chatbot.

Also, get your lawyer to review any contracts before you sign up for IT outsourcing or decide on a chatbot software company. They can help you understand the company’s data collection policies, where your customer and proprietary data goes, and how much control you have over cybersecurity. You need to know where you stand on the issue of liability in case you experience a data breach.

It may seem like a lot, but you’ll be reaping the benefits of a well-honed chatbot with cybersecurity firmly at the helm.

This content is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing professional, financial, medical or legal advice. You should contact your licensed professional to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.

Copyright © 2023 Applied Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

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