Cognitive Computing Security: Journey or Destination for Travel and Hospitality Providers?

June 24, 2016
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4 min read

Travel and hospitality is a multibillion-dollar industry. According to the U.S. Travel Association, spending by domestic and international travelers topped $947 billion last year — that’s $2.6 billion each day. Almost $300 billion was spent on business travel and $650 billion on leisure travel, with more than 8 million workers required to handle necessary booking requests, cancellations and modifications to travel plans.

It’s no surprise, then, that the industry is now starting to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and cognitive computing solutions to streamline the process. But are travel and hospitality companies prepared for the new influx of cognitive computing security challenges?

Journey or Destination?

As noted by TechRepublic, the “digital customer journey” is a top priority for many companies that recognize the need for applied data analytics to improve the customer experience. According to Harriet Green, general manager of IBM’s Watson for IoT, commerce and education, “Every customer is unique and has little tolerance for businesses that fail to recognize their specific interests, wants and needs.”

Already the travel and hospitality industry is moving down this path: Websites that automatically search for the best vacation deals, flight prices and hotel availability are quickly becoming the norm as consumers get fed up with doing the legwork themselves. Similarly, industry providers can’t afford to have full-time employees crunching numbers in the background as traveler requests and demands increase exponentially.

While tools like IBM’s Watson are designed to give companies real-time data insight, The New York Times noted that a new wave of virtual travel assistant services are emerging as travel agencies, airlines and hotels look for ways to streamline the consumer experience. For example, the Pana app allows users to chat about travel bookings and also provides advice if travelers encounter a delay or cancellation. On-location kiosks, meanwhile, let users discover nearby amenities, recommend interesting sites and can even make dinner reservations.

Miriam Moscovici, director of emerging technologies for BCD travel, told The Times that in the next year, “lower-priority tasks will be handled by self-service artificial intelligence, which will free up human travel agents to do more of the intense work required.” It’s a win-win for companies and travelers alike: Businesses can spend more satisfying complex customer requirements while users get access to the information they need, when they need it.

Cognitive Revolution

Behind this new wave of travel apps is cognitive computing. Progress is steady — machines are not only faster, but now better able to emulate the human thought process and generate appropriate responses. Based on minimal user input, new technologies could suggest likely destinations, attractions and restaurants that match customer preferences, and then take things a step further by checking availability and booking flights, hotels and cars all from a mobile device or via an internet portal.

But cognition hasn’t quite achieved critical mass. As noted by CIOL, one key component is the expanding Internet of Things (IoT). In effect, the spread of wirelessly connected devices — from sensors to data collectors to analysis tools — reduces the need to centralize cognitive functions. It essentially lays the foundation for a kind of hive mind able to answer user questions more quickly and more accurately.

On the corporate side, meanwhile, less computing throughput is needed. Better still? It’s possible that cognitive systems will help enhance basic IT security by providing a way to leverage human detective capabilities at speed: Threats could be found and remediated in record time.

Cognitive Computing Security at Scale

While there’s no denying the benefits of an AI-based travel industry, this framework also introduces unique cognitive computing security threats. Consider the spread of point-of-sale (POS) malware: A number of companies have had their POS systems breached when third-party hardware and infrastructure were compromised by malicious actors.

Now apply this same scenario to an IoT-connected travel industry: Holes in a trip-planning app or hotel kiosk could have downstream consequences for credit card processing or airline bookings. Fraud is also a concern. The bigger the network, the more damage possible with a stolen credit card number or set of user credentials.

Perhaps the largest threat to the travel industry comes from the biggest benefit of IoT-driven cognitive solutions: computing at scale. Just as more devices spread over a large area enhances the ability of apps and services to return relevant results or check booking details, so, too, does a compromised IoT network provide a staggering amount of power for a malicious actor. It’s the other side of the security coin: If thinking machines can evaluate IT threats like human beings, they can also design threats to defeat typical digital defenses.

Safe Arrival

What does all this mean for the travel industry? As one of the most customer-driven — and lucrative — markets in the U.S., it’s ground zero for cognitive evolution and companion security threats. Safeguarding both consumer and corporate data necessitates a dual approach.

First, travel companies need the help of an intelligent partner. There’s no sense in fighting AI threats without a cognitive computer on the roster. Second is an investment in specificity. As noted by Hackaday, even the term Internet of Things is ludicrously imprecise since any device — from printers to toothbrushes to fridges to light switches — can be internet-connected.

Attempting to establish some kind of broad-spectrum IoT barrier is a losing prospect. Instead, travel companies need to take a hard look at their most vulnerable assets, apps and services and then deploy purpose-built security measures. It’s the difference between securing a physical building with 1,000 easy-to-pick locks or one incredibly complex locking mechanism. A cognitive-driven attack encounters no difficulty at scale but may balk at sophistication, giving companies time to detect and react to the threat.

Travel and hospitality providers can reap big benefits from connected IoT apps and services, but the adaptable intelligence necessary to satisfy consumers poses a security risk. Companies must rethink their strategy to combat cognitive computing security risks.

Douglas Bonderud
Freelance Writer

A freelance writer for three years, Doug Bonderud is a Western Canadian with expertise in the fields of technology and innovation. In addition to working for...
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