Government Contact Centers and COVID-19: Security Challenges During the Pandemic



By: Matthew Vulpis

Originally published in Customer Magazine

When the COVID-19 pandemic originally began, industries all around the globe were affected, as they had to swiftly and efficiently shift their operations to be done remotely, and the customer service industry was no exception. However, unlike other industries, contact centers had to make the switch while experiencing an unprecedented increase in the need for their services, as customer inquiries amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic skyrocketed. One sector of this industry found itself especially stretched to its limits, contact centers of government agencies, as citizens turned to the government looking for answers.

Call volumes into federal contact centers increased a hundredfold as agencies such as emergency response services, labor, social services, mental health, and a myriad more found themselves struggling to keep up with the public demands for information. With a lack of resources, and the necessity to also keep up daily government activities, these federal contact centers had to find ways to help those affected by COVID-19, while also being affected drastically themselves. The move to remote services put a strain on these agencies, with one of the most challenging problems being how to make the switch and manage the increased volume, all while making sure not to jeopardize their security.

Like other contact centers that operate just for businesses, government agency contact centers found their infrastructure put to the test during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their systems were flooded with inquiries and questions regarding the pandemic, or how the pandemic would affect the caller’s life. The pandemic was a “wake-up call” to any contact center not using automation, effective digital channels, and cloud-based communication. And while upgrading infrastructure does improve a contact center’s efficiency, the overall switch puts strains on the system, potentially compromising the security of the information being held.

Information security is a top concern for contact centers, especially those working within the federal industry. Government agency contact centers are tasked with keeping some of the nation’s most important information secure, while also protecting the information of many government officials. Such threats as cyber-attacks and insider attacks were already of concern to federal agencies, but with the now widespread reliance on maximum telework to continue agency operations, these threats become an even higher risk.

We asked Michael Fritzlo, Executive Chairman of Ironsphere, a Privileged Access Management company, about their observations in this regard. “Government agency contact centers are finding increased compromises in security that relate to the fact that all work must be done remotely during the pandemic,” Fritzlo said. “Fewer than ten percent of all contact centers, across the industry, were doing work remotely prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. That number is now at 71 percent. This leads to more compromises in security, as while working remotely, not everybody has access to the same quality of technology.”

Employees performing unclassified work at home using computers with weak passwords or poorly secured home Wi-Fi routers, cell phones, free social media platforms, and other non-secure means of communication, run the risk of inadvertently disclosing classified information, Michael Fritzlo explained, also noting there have been some intentional misuse of credentials, including sharing of passwords. “Employees working remotely raises the risk of security breaches of remotely stored and transmitted data, and agencies are now putting in place monitoring and management software, with automated password rotations, multi-factor authentication, and more,” Fritzlo said.

While cyber-attacks and insider threats are the main concern of government agency contact centers, the switch to remote online work has also brought forward an increase of fraud focused security breaches. As federal contact centers work to help consumers keep up with financial responsibilities during the pandemic, the increase in web-based payments and banking has led to an increase in numerous types of fraud attempts.

Fritzlo continued to note, “Increased risk of cybercrimes, including phishing, email fraud, and cyberattacks on third-party technology service providers, are more common in today’s remote working world, as consumers use mobile and online banking during the pandemic.”

While government agency contact centers are still adapting to the ever-changing pandemic landscape, and the massive spike in call volumes that have been brought with it, they may have inadvertently opened themselves up to new threats when it comes to the overall security of their agency.

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