How Does Technical Debt Pose a Cybersecurity Risk?

  • What is Technical Debt?

Ward Cunningham, the Agile Manifesto co-author who coined the term “technical debt,” explained it using a financial analogy: Moving forward to develop a new software application is analogous to taking out a loan (debt).

Consider creating a product with cutting-edge technology. You’re dealing with a lot of unknowns and some trial-and-error. You do your best with what you have now, moving forward in the face of uncertainty. You use what you learn about what works well and what doesn’t to improve the code. Making the code better as you gain experience is analogous to repaying the loan. Isn’t this a liberating thought?

However, Cunningham’s original concept of technical debt has evolved in recent years. Most organizations now define technical debt as code with known flaws and inefficiencies. You’re allowing tech debt to grow if you leave that subpar code in place.

  • Is the quest for speed-to-market causing more technical debt?

technical debt

Technical debt (as defined today) can accumulate in this manner. Because developers must complete new features and enhancements, they may not have time to fix code from previous releases. Unless a customer complains about the software or it completely fails, a team may choose to leave flaws in place rather than “waste” time on fixes.

Why would an organization make time to write clean code in the first place if they don’t make time to do it later?

If you never return to improve the code, the debt will persist and grow. You’re making interest payments on it. That “interest” could take many forms, such as dissatisfied customers or a low market share because your product is inferior to competitors’.

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  • How Does Technical Debt Affect Security?

A vulnerability is defined as any flaw that could result in compromised data, systems, brand reputation, etc. An IT security risk is the potential ramifications for a company if an attacker successfully exploits these vulnerabilities.

Developers and businesses must balance speed and functionality, usability, and security. Unfortunately, these priorities are at odds.

What if security features make it more challenging to use a product? Who triumphs? Security, usability, or functionality? Security is more likely to win if you work in government or a highly regulated industry. However, functionality and usability far too often take precedence over security for the rest of us.

And what happens when there’s a culture of “gotta move fast, so let’s put that in later” if a company doesn’t prioritize security from the start? Speed kills, just like it does in cars.

Another thing to remember is that an organization can write clean code while still compromising security, and you must have both clean code and a security mindset.

  • What Security Issues Can Technical Debt Cause?

Understanding the various ways poorly executed projects can open the door to intruders and attackers and how discovered vulnerabilities can be quickly and safely sealed is the first step toward minimizing technical debt’s security impact. Here are seven ways that technical debt can cause issues for a CISO.

  • Dodgy Software

According to Rahul Telang, an information systems professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy, “technical debt” is overused. “Essentially, it means you borrowed something to get the product out, and now you have to pay back the debt,” he explains. “It’s easy to see how failing to pay your debt on time increases your security risk.”

Telang emphasizes that CISOs must recognize that every software development project will go through stages in which the code must be refactored over time to address potential security gaps. He believes that the CISO must have a structure to detect potential issues before deployment because it is easy to miss when the product is already in use.

Software ages over time, and patches are issued regularly to address bugs and security issues. However, all software eventually reaches an end-of-life stage when the creator no longer supports it. Unfortunately, it may be difficult to sunset a current software product in some cases because the developer has either abandoned the offering or gone out of business. When this occurs, running legacy software risks incurring dangerous technical debt because invaders and attackers may have discovered new ways to exploit the software. The consequences can be disastrous. “We’ve seen many real-world examples of how a single company’s software’s security posture can affect thousands of organizations worldwide,” Davis says.

  • Weak Governance

Strong governance is required to keep technical debt from becoming a security issue. David Chaddock, a director in the cybersecurity practice of business and IT consulting firm West Monroe, believes it is critical to address an asset’s entire lifecycle during its initial design and implementation, including the long-term operational costs and support resources required to reduce the possibility that a system suddenly or gradually becomes a security concern. “This necessitates early engagement and inclusion of security teams in the design process,” he says.

  • Poor Strategic Alignment

According to Eugene Okwodu, director of cybersecurity solutions at Guidehouse, a global business and IT outsourcing firm, a CISO should work within the enterprise to understand technical debt and the right metrics to manage it. “The CISO should also budget for needed tech refresh costs,” he adds.

When IT and cybersecurity strategies collide, it is common for technical debt to emerge. Okwodu observes that working with an internal project management office or engaging outside help may be necessary to ensure adequate alignment and resolution of the conflict.

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Poor Strategic Alignment

  • Neglecting or Delaying Modernization

It may take years in some cases before a technical debt becomes apparent. According to Okwodu, aging technology, both hardware, and software, poses a significant security risk. “Not only is the technology in some cases impossible to replace and repair, but it’s usually more interconnected and less understood by current staff,” he explains, opening the door to potential security breaches.

Years, if not decades, of workarounds, updates, upgrades, and merger and acquisition activity can exacerbate technical debt. “Technical debt that necessitates costly system modernization, particularly in software systems,” Okwodu says, “combined with the specialized knowledge that is less common in today’s workforce, poses a significant security risk to businesses.

  • Failing to Adopt Sound Development Practices

DevSecOps is more than a catchphrase, and many security issues can be addressed and controlled when sound development practices are used. “Insist on proper DevSecOps principles from the beginning of development projects and insist on controls that can help visualize metrics in terms of security gaps,” advises Keatron Evans, a principal security researcher at the Infosec Institute, a technology training company.

As a program matures, it becomes more useful and widely used. However, these characteristics can also make security flaws more challenging to fix or mitigate. “The very energy that causes a piece of code to grow and become productive, useful, and valuable causes overlooked security issues to become more devastating in the long run,” Evans explains. DevSecOps automates security integration at every stage of the software development lifecycle, effectively preventing an open door from appearing unexpectedly.

  • Delayed Testing

Delaying software security testing until later stages of development can result in complex, time-consuming, and expensive vulnerabilities to fix. “Delaying testing until the end of the process can result in massive redevelopment efforts to address security concerns,” warns Jeremy Dodson, CISO of DevOps consulting service provider NextLink Labs.

Dodson believes that security should be a collaborative effort. “A CISO can play a critical role in developing a security culture within their organization, particularly with the development team,” he says. “A mental shift can go a long way toward incorporating security measures throughout the design and development.”

  • Runaway Complexity

According to Barry Goffe, senior director of platform strategy at low-code app development platform provider OutSystems, relying on too many development languages, tools, platforms, and frameworks is a significant cause of technical debt. “With complexity comes the possibility of mistakes, and compounding that risk makes identifying when those mistakes have occurred more difficult,” he says. “Even if issues are identified, complexity makes fixing those vulnerabilities more difficult.”

According to Goffe, complexity does not guarantee security vulnerabilities, but it increases the likelihood of them occurring and the cost of mitigating them. “Given that complexity is a leading cause of technical debt,” he continues, “efforts to standardize and simplify application development tools and infrastructure can pay huge dividends in minimizing the creation of new technical debt.”

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  • How Can Business Leaders Help Reduce Technical Debt?

You’re probably accruing technical debt if your company values automation and speed. So you want to make certain that the debt is acceptable.

The right kind of technical debt boosts your company’s speed and agility. The wrong type of technical debt will expose your organization to unnecessary security risks. As a leadership team, discuss this distinction. The business priorities you prioritize drive the behaviors that either keep technical debt under control or cause it to grow.


The C-suite must work with the CISO to ensure that developers and others involved in software projects have up-to-date security knowledge. Have you taught your programmers how to code securely? Are you attempting to incorporate automated security testing into your CI/CD process to enforce security best practices?

The C-suite must set the right tone for developers regarding the importance of IT security. Leaders will reward developers for their efforts, and you may be increasing your organization’s cybersecurity risk if you prioritize speed over security and code quality.

As a leader, you can persuade your organization to do the right thing.

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