Chatbots are all the rage these days. Their ability to facilitate contextual responses makes them incredibly useful for providing proactive customer service and improving user engagement. Many companies also use them to generate leads and boost sales.
However, this surge in popularity makes chatbot technology a prime target for cybercriminals. Bad-faith actors are quick to exploit vulnerabilities, which can result in significant financial and reputation losses.
Should you embed chatbots on your website? Probably, but only after understanding the potential security risks and how to protect against them.
Collecting Data Makes You a Target
Chatbots have evolved in recent years from basic rule-based bots with prewritten questions and answers to advanced conversational AI systems capable of answering complex queries in a more human-like way.
One thing that has remained constant at every step in this evolution is data collection. Chatbots depend on the information they gather to function correctly. Some of it can contain sensitive personal information, such as when customers enter their full legal name, geo-location or payment information.
This wealth of data makes chatbots a target for hackers.
Understanding Chatbot Security Risks
Chatbots have two main types of cybersecurity risks: vulnerabilities and threats.
Vulnerabilities are unintentional flaws or gaps in a system’s security — the same way that forgetting to lock your door makes your home vulnerable to intruders.
Even the most robust systems could have potential vulnerabilities, usually from insufficient security protocols and missing data encryption.
Sometimes, vulnerabilities arise from human error, such as carelessness and cybersecurity fatigue. These inefficiencies impact productivity and can lead to more incidents of security lapses. For example, a study by 1Password revealed that 26% of employees had left work halfway through just so they wouldn't have to log in.
On the other hand, when cybercriminals attempt to exploit chatbot system vulnerabilities, their actions are collectively known as threats. Successful exploitations can result in organizations being locked out of their data. Often, the only way to regain access is to pay a ransom. Threats are also hugely problematic if hackers impersonate a company because they diminish customer trust and open the doorway to legal issues.
Examples of Chatbot Security Risks
Here are some chatbot vulnerabilities and threats an organization may be exposed to:
Source Code Vulnerability
Vulnerabilities in the source code allow hackers to attach an endpoint to extract data, tamper with the application or even erase everything.
A recent example is ChatGPT’s data breach in March 2023, which exposed sensitive user data such as leaked chat history and billing information. The attack resulted from an exploitation of its Redis open-source library.
Source code vulnerabilities often go undetected since thousands of developers access and build on them.
If you’re adding a chatbot to your site, you’ll likely do so through an application programming interface (API) integration. This mechanism allows the chatbot software and your website to communicate with each other using defined parameters and protocols.
An API is like a data bridge between your web application and customers. Exploiting vulnerabilities here allows hackers unauthorized access to sensitive information such as passwords and personal customer data. Examples of threats from API vulnerabilities include prompt injection attacks, cross-site scripting (XSS) and DDoS attacks.
Data Set Poisoning
Chatbots are trained on vast amounts of information from the internet. What happens if the source material contains corrupted data?
In February 2023, an MIT research team manipulated a chatbot into acting outside its bounds by poisoning the data set used to train the model. As a result, the chatbot output also became tainted, presenting false information, such as tagging a particular image as NSFW when it wasn't.
Hackers use malware attacks to gain access to a system’s backend. This can happen in different ways, but the underlying process involves introducing malicious code into the system, such as viruses and spyware.
One of the most common ways to initiate malware distribution is by exploiting vulnerabilities in the chatbot. For example, if a chat system allows users to upload photos or documents, hackers could use that to upload a malware-ridden file. Once in, they can infiltrate the database to steal information or manipulate the system to entice people to click on malicious links or download infected files.
Protecting Against Chatbot Security Risks
The global chatbot market is expected to reach over $3.4 billion by 2023, so it’s safe to assume that chatbots are here to stay.
There may be huge cost savings in the offing, too. Gartner predicts deploying conversational AI in contact centers will save $80 billion in agent labor costs by 2026.
The task for organizations now is to ensure they put up the necessary protection measures to safeguard their systems. These include:
1. Install Only Certified Chatbot Systems
The chatbot system you install should meet certified security standards such as ISO 27001, the industry standard for information security management systems. This certification means the chatbot provider has a plan to mitigate data security risks.
2. Establish Proper Authentication Procedures
Set your chatbot application to use external authentication methods, such as two-factor authentication and biometric scans. This measure adds another layer of security that can help prevent impersonation by fraudulent actors.
3. Insist on End-to-End Encryption
This method encrypts data transfer from the origination point to the destination. End-to-end encryption ensures that only the sender and intended receiver can see the message or transaction with the chatbot.
4. Require User to Sign Up
Cybercriminals like easy targets. Requiring website visitors to become registered users before they can access the chatbot application can be an effective measure for deterring would-be hackers.
5. Educate Employees
Human error and negligence remain the biggest risk factor in cybersecurity. In its 2022 Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum traced 95% of cybersecurity breaches to human error. Regularly training your employees on key processes and safety procedures is paramount in improving cybersecurity.
Take Steps to Ensure Chatbot Security
The benefits of integrating chatbots into your business processes are undeniable, as are the security risks. Implementing these measures is only a starting point. Cyber threats and vulnerabilities evolve all the time, so be proactive and commit to ongoing learning about the latest security methods to stay ahead.