Siri and Alexa may be used by protesters to attack customer support channels

Gartner report warns that virtual assistants, which are a growing part of digital customer experience, are also a weak spot.

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“Hey Siri, lead a protest.” 

Virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa, which are a growing part of the digital customer experience, from discovery via search marketing to customer support, may soon be used by protesters to disrupt organizations by flooding customer support channels, according to a study by Gartner. They believe this is one consequence of the increasing use of virtual assistants for legitimate customer support requests.

By the end of next year there will be 8.4 billion virtual assistants in use, up from 3.25 billion in 2019, according to Statista. These devices are rapidly becoming more sophisticated and are being used by customers to interact with companies. By 2025, 37% of customers will try using a virtual assistant to interact with customer service, according to The Gartner 2023 Leadership Vision for Customer Service and Support report.

Currently these interactions are for entirely legitimate reasons, like waiting on hold and ordering a pizza. Making them as seamless as possible is an increasingly important part of a customer’s interaction with a brand, even though the customer themselves aren’t directly involved.

Why we care. This is a fascinating and worrying example of a technology’s unintended consequences. Making something more efficient and easier-to-use is a big market advantage. Especially when it comes to customer service. As every marketer knows, few things build loyalty like great customer support. Do it poorly and you have a big weak spot in your brand.

Now, it may be that technological ease-of-use could also be a weak spot. What to do? Automate more, increase capacity and be ready to deploy more resources. Who knows if these attacks will come to pass, but be prepared is a prudent attitude.

As for the future, it is difficult to imagine all the possible things that may happen. The Pentagon employs a panel of science fiction writers to help them anticipate future threats. If these attacks come to pass, private industry may want to do the same.

Dig deeper: 3 steps to get ready for Siri, Alexa and other machine customers

Legitimate interactions with virtual assistants are going to increase. As of last year, Amazon Alexa had more than 130,000 skills people could potentially leverage to automate transactions. Soon virtual assistants will be able to request service, receive messages, make recurring transactions, report problems issues and gather product information via every customer service channel.

This by itself poses a challenge to organizations by increasing the demand for customer service. Within two years, 20% of inbound contact volume will come from virtual assistants, according to Gartner.

In response, many companies are investing in systems that use these capabilities — like a printer ordering more ink so a customer doesn’t have to. They are also automating customer service with chatbots and interactive voice systems.

But these legitimate interactions using virtual assistants will pave the way for protests, say Gartner’s analysts.

“Protests against business and government organizations are increasingly digital,” the report states. “In 2021 there were at least 9.84 million distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks designed to shut down organizations’ websites by overwhelming them with traffic. This was a 14% increase from 2019.” 

Ease of use will make virtual assistants a powerful vector for protest.

“Citizen-led denial of service attacks (cDoS) are a new type of denial of service, led by average people, not hackers, and performed through virtual assistants,” according to the report. “By 2024, citizens will shut down a major global enterprise company’s contact center through denial of service attacks launched by virtual assistants.”

These attacks are expected to be triggered by people protesting “social issues as opposed to maliciously motivated hackers.” They could be costly, as large businesses could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars in operational expenses responding to them. That’s in addition to the costs from lost productivity, customer churn and long-term brand impact.


About the author

Constantine von Hoffman
Constantine von Hoffman is managing editor of MarTech. A veteran journalist, Con has covered business, finance, marketing and tech for, Brandweek, CMO, and Inc. He has been city editor of the Boston Herald, news producer at NPR, and has written for Harvard Business Review, Boston Magazine, Sierra, and many other publications. He has also been a professional stand-up comedian, given talks at anime and gaming conventions on everything from My Neighbor Totoro to the history of dice and boardgames, and is author of the magical realist novel John Henry the Revelator. He lives in Boston with his wife, Jennifer, and either too many or too few dogs.

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