How-to guides

How to reduce security debt: Best practices

Learn the basics of security debt: What it is, how to identify it, and the best steps to reduce it effectively.

Roy Horev | March 27, 2024

This blog aims to provide a detailed exploration of technical and security debt, offering insights into their origins, impacts, and strategies for mitigation. Through a careful examination of causes, manifestations, and remediation techniques, we’ll uncover how organizations can navigate the delicate balance between rapid innovation and the maintenance of robust, secure software systems. 


Security vulnerability debt accumulates when software vulnerabilities are not promptly addressed, leading to a backlog of security risks. Managing this debt involves prioritizing critical vulnerabilities, regular patching, and continuous security monitoring to prevent potential breaches and ensure system integrity.


What is technical debt?

Technical debt, a concept often encountered in the realm of software development, embodies the compromise between immediate functionality and the future cost of maintaining and upgrading the system. This metaphorical “debt” arises when decisions made for the sake of speed and expedience in development lead to additional, often greater, costs down the line. The interest on this debt manifests as the extra effort required to go back and resolve the shortcuts taken earlier. 

While technical debt encompasses a broad spectrum of software development issues, a particularly critical aspect emerges when considering security vulnerability debt: this specifically refers to the compromises made that affect the security posture of a system, leaving it exposed to potential breaches and attacks. 


What is security vulnerability debt?

Security vulnerability debt specifically addresses the backlog of unaddressed security risks that accumulate when the immediate demands of development lead to the postponement of necessary security measures. This backlog represents a growing list of vulnerabilities that, if left unmanaged, can expose systems to significant security breaches, compliance violations, and operational disruptions. 


Origins and classifications

Both technical and security vulnerability debt can spring from various sources, ranging from intentional decisions made under pressure to reach market first, to inadvertent results of oversight or lack of foresight. Martin Fowler offers a nuanced classification: 


technical debt


  • Reckless and deliberate: Decisions made with knowledge of a better approach but ignored due to time constraints or underestimation of security needs. 
  • Reckless and inadvertent: Incurred through a lack of awareness or understanding of security best practices, leading to vulnerabilities. 
  • Prudent and deliberate: Conscious acceptance of debt with a strategic plan for future remediation, often seen in the phased rollout of security features. 
  • Prudent and inadvertent: Unforeseen debt arising from evolving security threats or standards, which were not apparent or considered during initial development. 

Security vulnerability debt is especially concerning because it directly impacts the risk profile of a software product, exposing users and organizations to potential harm. 


Causes of technical and security vulnerability debt

Technical and security vulnerability debt share common causes, including but not limited to: 

  • Rapid development cycles: The push to deliver features quickly can lead to inadequate security considerations, such as insufficient testing or reliance on unverified third-party libraries. 
  • Resource constraints: Limited budgets and tight schedules may prioritize immediate functionality over comprehensive security measures. 
  • Changing requirements and technologies: As software evolves, previously secure code can become vulnerable due to changes in the surrounding ecosystem, such as new types of attacks or the deprecation of cryptographic standards. 
  • Lack of expertise: Teams without sufficient cyber security knowledge may inadvertently introduce vulnerabilities into the system. 


Impact and consequences

The consequences of unaddressed technical and security vulnerability debt are severe. Beyond the direct costs of remediation, which increase over time, there are broader implications: 

  • Security breaches: Unpatched vulnerabilities are prime targets for exploitation, leading to data breaches, system compromises, and loss of customer trust. 
  • Compliance risks: Failing to adhere to security standards and regulations can result in hefty fines and legal ramifications. 
  • Operational disruptions: Security incidents can disrupt business operations, leading to significant financial losses and damage to reputation. 
  • Increased maintenance efforts: High levels of debt make it difficult to implement new features or respond to emerging threats efficiently. 

In the context of cyber security, managing technical debt is not merely a matter of maintaining code quality and efficiency; it is a critical component of risk management and security posture. Addressing security vulnerability debt requires a proactive strategy, integrating security considerations into every stage of the development lifecycle and ensuring that decisions today do not compromise the security of the system tomorrow. 


of security leaders patched fewer than 50% of vulnerabilities in their backlogs in 2023.

Managing security vulnerability debt

The accumulation of security vulnerability debt poses significant challenges to organizations, threatening not only the integrity and efficiency of software systems but also their security posture. Effective management and mitigation of this debt are paramount to maintaining operational resilience, safeguarding data, and ensuring compliance with regulatory standards. Herein lies a multifaceted approach to tackling both technical and security vulnerability debt. 


1. Acknowledgment and assessment

The first step in addressing technical and security vulnerability debt is acknowledging its existence and comprehensively assessing its scope. This involves: 

  • Inventory of existing debt: Conducting thorough audits of codebases, infrastructure, and security protocols to identify areas of concern, including outdated libraries, deprecated encryption standards, and unpatched vulnerabilities. 
  • Risk assessment: Evaluating the potential impact of identified vulnerabilities and technical debt on the organization’s risk posture, prioritizing issues based on severity and the likelihood of exploitation. 


2. Strategic planning

With a clear understanding of the debt landscape, organizations must develop a strategic plan for remediation that aligns with their business objectives and risk management priorities. This includes: 


3. Implementing best practices

Mitigating security vulnerability debt requires the adoption of best practices throughout the software development lifecycle (SDLC): 

  • Secure coding standards: Adopting and enforcing secure coding practices to prevent the introduction of new vulnerabilities. 
  • Continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) with Security Testing: Integrating automated security testing tools into the CI/CD pipeline to identify and address vulnerabilities early in the development process. 
  • Regular patch management: Establishing processes for the timely application of security patches and updates to software and dependencies. 


4. Embracing a culture of security

A proactive approach to managing security vulnerability debt involves cultivating a culture of security within the organization: 

  • Education and training: Providing ongoing training for developers, security teams, and stakeholders on security best practices and the importance of addressing technical debt. 
  • Security as a shared responsibility: Encouraging collaboration between development, operations, and security teams to ensure security is integrated into all aspects of software development and deployment.


5. Leveraging technology and tools

Utilizing the right tools can significantly enhance an organization’s ability to manage vulnerability management programs effectively.


6. Continuous monitoring and improvement

Managing security vulnerability debt is an ongoing process that requires continuous monitoring and adaptation: 

  • Feedback loops: Establishing mechanisms for feedback on security incidents and vulnerabilities, allowing for swift action and continuous improvement of security practices. 
  • Regular reviews: Conducting periodic reviews of the debt management strategy to adapt to new threats, technologies, and business requirements. 


The bottom line: Reducing security vulnerability debt

Security vulnerability debt can severely impair a company’s ability to innovate, can harm brand image, and severely impact your bottom line. Adopting best practices including proper testing, effective patch management, and a DevSecOps approach can help you avoid security debt and keep your customers’ data safe. 

The Vulcan Cyber® ExposureOS prioritizes and automates the entire vulnerability management process across every stage of the lifecycle. It integrates with your existing tools and security solutions—from asset management, testing, and patching to DevOps tools, ITSM, and configuration management.  Vulcan Cyber lets you fix security vulnerabilities early in the production process and at scale to deliver secure code at speed, without disrupting business operations. 

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