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Is your chatbot a privacy threat?

Image courtesy of Streebo

Chatbots have revolutionized the way businesses interact with their customers, from newsrooms to insurance providers. They create efficiencies while still providing that “human” touch so vital to building a bond with consumers. However, while your artificial intelligence (AI) is helping quickly resolve simple customer service issues or providing product information to potential buyers, it may also be endangering your most precious resources – your customers.

Private AI?
Natural language utilization is the holy grail of developers, and chatbots will only become “friendlier” over time, able to better answer questions or manage customer requests. While this may seem beneficial, it can create problems with customers who do not understand the technology. Many consumers who interact with chatbots cannot seem to adequately comprehend that they are communicating with a computer system – one that is programmed to record everything that is being communicated. Additionally, not all companies are upfront about the fact that consumers are engaging with a chatbot or about how the data from the interaction will be utilized.

Data from chatbots are primarily used for advertising and the company’s use (such as improving the site or creating stronger marketing campaigns); data can also be repackaged with other information and sold to outside agencies. The danger in this use comes from linking chatbot data with personal information, such as the house location, identity, or phone number, which could expose individuals to negative consequences. The exchange of data between companies can naturally result in unintended consequences, since there is no way to prevent the mishandling of data after it has been collected. There is, of course, a darker aspect to the collection and sharing of data: breaches. Breaches can be caused by accident (such as when an employee accidentally emails private information or plugs in a flash drive he found in the parking lot), but most are motivated by malicious intent (such as leaks caused by a disgruntled employee). Chatbots themselves are open to outside attacks.

The most vulnerable among us
Data exchanges are vulnerable to questionable usage, particularly data created by chatbots. Chatbots are in a unique position. They deal with a customer on a personal level. When this data is viewed together with other types of information (such as age and location), it can open individuals and entities to personal, legal, and even criminal threats. For example, an individual could suffer repercussions at work if chatbot info from a health care website revealed the person was currently receiving treatment for illegal substances or depression. Legal questions would arise if the chatbot dialogue uncovers statements about potential abuse. Individuals could suffer mental strain and financial loss if hackers acquire control over their identity, daily routines or finances. Hackers can even use a man-in-the-middle attack, pretending to be your chatbot to obtain information without cracking your databases.

Regulations to the rescue
GDPR and other privacy regulations affect the use of chatbots since they act as agents of data collection for your business. Basically, these new rules support a key idea: Individuals must have the right to control their own data. Companies that are in the EU or collect data on EU citizens are required to comply with the statutes. Compliance is mandatory and will require a new approach to how data is handled at businesses. For example, if you don’t already have one, your company will need to hire or appoint a Data Compliance Officer to oversee the use of data in light of the regulations. Additionally, chatbots must identify what information is being stored and for what purposes. Customers have the right to have this data removed. Businesses must also take steps to ensure that data are protected effectively. (Incidentally, while many companies are investing in data protection, they are not doing it to a large extent.)

Chatting about the future
Chatbots will continue to be an important tool at businesses, but the implementation of data privacy protections will impact their use and security. In addition, while the GDPR is designed to protect the rights of EU citizens, its impact will eventually be felt in every market. Consumers are becoming savvy about their data. Many companies may find that treating data in one standardized fashion is more cost-effective than trying to figure out compliance issues for millions of customers. Protecting customer data at every stage of collection, storage and utilization while allowing customers complete control over their information will help businesses maintain their relationships with customers while complying with the law.


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