Chatbot security measures you need to consider

Ruheni Mathenge Last updated: June 29, 2022
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Chatbots are here to stay, but they also bring new security headaches. Read on to find out what the general chatbot security situation is like today and what you can do about it.

Sneak peek at chatbot security

Chatbot AI systems are taking over the world as the first layer of interaction between an organization and its customers or clients. They bring exciting new prospects to user interaction. But they also pose new security problems that must be solved, or the chatbot becomes a liability. This article gives you a general panorama on this subject.

Different trends keep coming and going in the mercurial digital world. Some stick around, and some last as long as a tantrum. Chatbots are one of those trends that evolve into a generalized adoption. With all their annoyance, chatbots are here to stay, triggering the need to adopt subsequent security measures to prevent cyber threats.

As these chatbots become the standard “welcoming” gate between us and any given company’s customer support, more and more among us seem doomed to interact with them daily on our tablets, phones, computers, even with our smart TVs and other devices in some cases.

The value chatbots have for companies is apparent. The advanced degree of artificial intelligence chatbots nowadays boast uses natural language and machine learning to achieve automation, something impossible a few years ago, saving a lot of time and money.

However, whenever a new trend shows up, it brings along a new concern: how security-friendly is it? What are the best practices to adopt with the new thing security-wise? In today’s internet, security, privacy, and anonymity are paramount values for any user that is at least marginally aware of the information we’ve learned from Julian Assange and Edward Snowden. This article will try to shed some light on these issues.

Why is chatbot security important?

Chatbots can collect and convey sensitive data, personal or business. Therefore, security must be a vital priority as system implementation progresses. But, on the other hand, Chatbots can save a company a lot of money, and considerably improve its client experience if done correctly — when they are designed securely from the beginning.

AI solutions allow a company to automate processes that previously needed the human element. It’s also suitable for providing answers to individual questions. Indeed, plenty of chatbots are little more than glorified interactive FAQs, and that’s enough for their users on either side. But others are more sophisticated and provide more than answers to specific queries.

As chatbots are becoming the internet’s new plague, we need to securely integrate them into the user experience. The measures a company can adopt in this regard are many and relatively simple. And the thing to realize is that everybody wins as chatbots become secure.

Security issues with chatbots

AI solutions are finally becoming commercial products. The systems currently deployed were pure science fiction only a few years ago. However, they now can imitate human speech to a degree and communicate successfully with customers.

Such systems are not cheap. Instead, coming up with one such system requires expertise and resource availability, making it very difficult for hackers to come up with theirs. That’s why malicious chatbots are hard to come by so far -however, that could only last for a short period. Time will tell. 

Hacker exploitation is the first thing to worry about in chatbot security. Whenever a new trend or technology surfaces online, hackers start figuring out ways to harness its power for their purposes. Criminal hackers can deploy chatbots that persuade users to give away sensitive information or trick them into clicking a malicious link. These bots look normal, but they don’t help you. Instead, they get your personal and corporate information.

Internet users can protect themselves from these malicious chatbots by filtering their local traffic to exclude malicious activities. They can do this using cloud-based security suites, DNS firewalls, or a network filter that blocks IP addresses on a blocklist of known offenders.

But some security vulnerabilities also exist that can affect a chatbot while having nothing to do with malicious bots. The first issue is when a system’s methods are compromised. Other vulnerabilities in chatbots arise from the human element, defective coding, and inadequate security practices. Unfortunately, these problems can’t be corrected by simply deploying a patch. Instead, they require a preventive approach incorporating Security Development Lifecycle into the development process.

And the other type of security issues come from external threats like DDoS attacks, repudiation, spoofing, and other known techniques.

How you can ensure chatbot security

In the digital security area, two principles always hold: no solution is 100% effective, and you always start by getting the basics right. So what are the basics, we hear you ask? These:

  • Implementation of network security protocols.
  • Self-destructing messages.
  • Tight identity, access, and privileges management.
  • End-to-end encryption.
  • Two-factor access when available.

Those five measures are basic security standards. They require little effort, but their preventive nature makes the resulting increase in security significant. 

And then, those security measures need to adopt the following best practices for chatbot security.

1. Chatbot’s credentials

Your bot must have an exclusive account, period. Using an existing user’s credentials to run the bot doesn’t do. Yes, we know everybody is doing it. They’ll live to regret it. A separate account means individual permissions, logs, and credentials. It eliminates any room for confusion when you need to run a forensic test or analysis, and it’s ultimately the safest way to go. It’s also safer for the corporation and the employees as their credentials do not get additional usage.

Also, keep customer activities separate from chatbot activities. It helps with tests, examinations, clarity, and transparency. It also increases efficiency.

2. End-to-end encryption

End-to-end encryption secures a communication channel so the information going back and forth can’t be intercepted. Since public key encryption is the dominant practice, only the two users at each end of the tunnel can use the data. For everybody else, it’s random noise.

The safety you gain with end-to-end encryption is such that even if a hacker finds its way to your servers, he won’t be able to retrieve any valuable data without the encryption keys. Of course, getting those keys is impossible because one of them is on the user’s side, far away from the server. The chatbot developing community has something to learn from the social media platforms. They have adopted end-to-end encryption to protect themselves from digital attacks.

3. Two-factor authentication

Two-factor authentication is becoming the rule in more and more digital services because it works. For example, it helps guarantee chatbot security as it verifies a user’s credentials through two separate channels concurrently. However, it requires an additional communication channel, usually an email or a mobile phone.

When the second code passes the authentication process, the user gains back his user rights. While it sounds too ordinary or boring, it’s a powerful security tool. It’s almost equivalent to having users physically there, passing the authorization test. That is why this kind of authentication is snowballing. The early adopters are the companies that need to ensure security, such as banking and financial services.

4. Biometric authentication

This method uses a piece of biological data to authenticate users. It is not as Sci-Fi as it sounds. Digital fingerprint authentication has been around for decades and is one of the biometric authentication methods available today. But there are other methods. Iris and retinal scans are becoming more popular and safer than fingerprints because there’s no physical contact with the user’s body and device.

5. Time-based authentication

This method gives users the user of its system rights for a given period only. When the period finishes, the system logs the user out. This method improves security by preventing the typical repetitive attempts a hacker must make when attacking.

6. Employee education

Digital security remains a somewhat arcane subject for geeks and paranoids. That is unfortunate because it’s so important.

Remember that your security chain is as strong as your weakest link. For example, suppose your employees do not practice good security in their work because they don’t know or care about that. In that case, they will be that weakest link, and no amount of advanced technology will amend that.

Education is the solution. You need your employees to know and understand why digital security matters in general, not just as it pertains to the chatbot system. Of course, it will be relevant to make them aware of the security practices for the chatbot. Still, if you don’t engage them in an integrated security mindset, you’ll always have a security problem at this level.

7. Embrace security protocols

You probably keep reading acronyms like TLS, HTTPS, and SSL. These are digital security protocols, and they’re your friends. Learn everything about them, understand them, adopt them, and let them do the work for you.

They work across platforms. They add several layers of encryption, as well as other security principles.

8. Secure bot management

The way you manage your bot is critical for security purposes. This is no surprise.

Ensure that your chatbot is an excellent central dashboard that allows your admin to see everything at a glance in a centralized way. Logs are essential because they allow your team to trace your bot’s activity and dig deeper when problems arise.

Top chatbot vulnerabilities today

Chatbot security
(Alamy)

1. Cross-site scripting

In any typical chat window, the user writes something in the input box, then hits enter. The next step is for the chatbot to “swallow” this text and mirror it in the main chat window. There’s the rub.

A malicious user can type in a piece of Javascript code and have the website’s engine execute it. So if this is an open vulnerability in your system, the attacker can take over the system if he’s proficient enough.

Fortunately, it’s easy to solve cross-site scripting vulnerability by simple input validation — which you should always be practicing.

2. SQL injection

A SQL injection attack gives your bot some malicious content for it to consider part of a legitimate piece of information. This vulnerability is not a chatbot-exclusive problem, but it’s present in any web app that uses databases.

Again, input validation will save you all the problems. Make sure that no regular expressions make it through your input, and trust your tokenizers.

3. Denial of Service (DoS)

AI processes are not light. They need a high amount of computations. However, Natural Language Understanding algorithms are quite taxing to any system, so a server doesn’t need to run many such processes for the resources to run out and become unavailable. 

So a hacker looking to bring your system down can achieve so by simply having a lot of users feeding your chatbot with text quickly. Thus forcing your server to deny the service to legitimate users.

We will not give you details about the solutions to this problem. However, DDoS attacks are almost a well-documented issue in digital security, and there are whole books on preventing them. So we will tell you here that chatbots apply the same preventive measures for any type of DDoS attack.

What are the risks of using chatbots?

A team developing a new chatbot will have to deal with the following risks as the project moves forward:

  • Speech recognition
  • Not conversational answers
  • Unauthentic personalization
  • High efficiency doesn’t translate into high effectiveness
  • No advantages over IVR

Conclusion

New technologies always create new security concerns, as mentioned earlier. And you should be aware of the additional security threats you will have to manage once you adopt a chatbot for your company or institution. So don’t be afraid. The information is all out there, waiting for you to find it.

Also, keep yourself up to date constantly. Chatbots are evolving as you read this. So, whatever you need to do to manage them correctly today will undoubtedly change tomorrow. 

The important thing is that a chatbot can revolutionize how your company interacts with its users and clients. And as they are quickly gaining worldwide adoption, having one is not so much an innovation as a necessity to keep up with the times.

However, corporate digital activities must put security above any other priority. And the brand new chatbot you have in mind to deploy should not be an exception.

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About the Author

Tech researcher and writer with a passion for cybersecurity. Alex is a strong advocate of digital freedom and online privacy.

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