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Living with Legacy in an Era of Innovation – A Security Story

siliconangle blog post image  Legacy is a perception of investment, and of value.  Unfortunately, legacy in the digital transformation era is seen to be a re-investment is what has been, but not what will necessarily be useful going forward.  For me, this is a false statement. For example, when the Year 2000 issue happened with systems, some firms used that opportunity to build more functionality into their systems where others just fixed the necessary bugs for the changeover.  So, one person’s legacy situation is perhaps another person’s opportunity.

But as the volume of legacy in an enterprise grows, how have we grown in our ability to leverage the investment in this legacy — or, for that matter, is it still worth the effort? Do legacy applications house a hoard of useful information and behavior — or is it a ball and chain, something you should reduce if you want to be innovative and actively working on transformation?

Legacy constraints often seem immense and burdensome — but, do they always need to be? Is object-oriented legacy software spaghetti code — or is it more like ravioli? Do agile methods embrace or reject the use of the legacy?  I am writing a series of blog posts on legacy and innovation, disproving the myth that old equals out of date and useless.

In this blog post, I will look at legacy in regards to security and streamlining of security operations. The shift to cloud and mobile has not always been graceful for organizations and has been disruptive to the way we deploy security controls. Making significant changes in authentication flow, the one security control that gates all vital access and privilege, is an enormously arduous and fragile task. The modern ‘mobile-first’ access pattern has thrown a wrench into what was an otherwise easy manageability for account security.

Not only are modern security controls challenging to adapt and apply to legacy infrastructure and interfaces, but legacy security controls tend to fall flat when it comes to modern infrastructure. How do you deploy your legacy security controls in the world of cloud and mobile when you don’t control the endpoint, network, application or infrastructure?

Authentication is often the only effective security control you have left in a modern, cloud and mobile-enabled IT environment. So you better be damn sure that authentication control is more than a simple password. But many do not.  Why is this?

I have done several authentication projects recently, and one of the main challenges I have seen is a lack of understanding of what must be protected and by whom. Too often, the focus is on cost and procedure, and not on an understanding of the dataflow and the number of endpoints involved in protecting the data. So why does the means to modern authentication seems difficult and expensive, and why do we worry so much about the impact on user experience when we never did in legacy? (wry smile).  Let’s look at why 2FA, SSO and biometrics never have caught on with many legacy houses, and why some still stick with passwords 10 years after many predicted their demise.

Two-factor authentication is becoming the norm for password security in what amounts to a reasonable concession from users to IT staff pleading with them to follow basic password security protocols. Since almost no one follows those protocols, two-factor authentication has become the stop-gap. Although passwords are bad, biometrics and other mechanisms were never considered a good replacement because they all suffered their own flaws, and could not counteract the biggest advantage passwords have going for them: They are cheap and convenient. Today we are seeing a growing movement away from explicit, one-point-in-time authentication to a recognition model that mixes implicit factors — such as geolocation, device recognition and behavioral analytics — with explicit challenges such as passwords, biometrics, OTPs [one-time passwords] and dynamic KBA [knowledge-based authentication] based on identity verification services. I just borrowed a colleague’s login to use an online application, and was denied based on geolocation and was asked for verification code from his email.   Given he is (hopefully) asleep in Canada and I am in Belgium, this stopped my progress to use the app.

Given we are throwing mobile into the mix, many firms are starting to use mobile push assuming we are glued to our mobile devices (at least the folks under 30) and can use it as an authenticator.  Mobile OTP and mobile device authenticators add some value in a 2FA approach, assuming you have not lost the device and/or are out of battery. But for security, do remember that a smartphone can still receive and display social media  or text message alerts even when the device’s screen is locked and the application that is pushing the notification is closed.

Basically, the security measures we use today reflect our risk tolerance and desire for simplicity.  This is because we assumed the hardware and systems were defended, and the endpoints were irrelevant because of strong system security.  Appropriate security depends on how valuable your data in the transaction is and what other protection is available for the data (encryption, public key infrastructure, etc).  Legacy complexity can be a good thing if the data is valuable.  But we work the data now at the endpoints, and therefore we need to find a way to block endpoint activities if necessary, using legacy technology.

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