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The Risks of Legacy Data and How to Address Them

4 min read

Ben Potaracke


As companies undergo a digital transformation to align technology and processes with modern business requirements, systems and data can get left behind. It’s important to ensure the adoption of new digital technologies is done strategically and incorporates effective data management. If you don’t have a handle on it, your legacy data can have financial and reputational implications for your business.

What is legacy data?

Legacy data can also be thought of as forgotten data. It was likely important information at one point and may even still have value today. Legacy data is typically stored in outdated systems, applications, and technologies.

When it comes to data, our tendency is to be more hoarder than minimalist. It’s estimated that by 2025, humanity’s collective data will reach 175 zettabytes – that’s the number 175 followed by 21 zeroes.

Some examples of legacy data your company may be holding onto include customer records, emails, spreadsheets, databases, and financial data. Holding onto unnecessary or outdated data can put your company at risk. In fact, there are several recent cases of companies incurring regulatory fines for the over-retention of data.

Is there value in legacy data?

While companies often retain data longer than they should, there are reasons you may still find value in some of your company’s legacy data.

  • Informed Decision Making. Through the analysis of legacy data, organizations may find insights into past business operations and then apply this to improve future decision-making. Patterns and trends may be identified that assist with product development, marketing, operations, and strategic planning. Historical data may also provide insights into the customer experience.
  • Maintain Compliance. Legacy data may be needed to maintain legal and regulatory compliance. If your industry governance requires retaining information for a certain amount of time, it’s imperative that you do so.

In cases where some of your legacy data holds valuable information for your company, a sound data management and record retention policy is key.

The risks of legacy data

Legacy data can contain sensitive or confidential information that needs to be protected from unauthorized access or cyber threats. As new security threats emerge, it can be difficult to ensure the security of legacy data, especially if some of the legacy systems or software are no longer supported. Here are three key security risks associated with legacy data.

  • Outdated Security Protocols. Legacy data is often stored using outdated security protocols that won’t protect your business from modern security threats. For example, data stored on legacy systems may not use encryption or multi-factor authentication.
  • Security Vulnerabilities. If your legacy data is being stored in an aging technology system, vulnerabilities may not be easy to fix. If there is a fix, patches are often delayed because they are lower on the priority list. Even worse, your legacy data may be in a completely unsupported system, exposing the company to a potential data breach.
  • Access Controls. Legacy data is often stored in systems that have outdated or ineffective access controls. Unauthorized users can then gain access to the data leaving it open to a security incident or data tampering.

Addressing legacy data

There are a few key actions your organization can take to address legacy data now and in the future.

  • Audit Your Data. Do you know where all your data is and is it protected? Holding on to legacy data indefinitely carries inherent risks. Audit your legacy systems for forgotten data. Then record and track the risks identified to use them in the creation of a data hygiene program.
  • Establish a Data Governance Lifecycle. A fundamental component of data management is that data must be owned throughout its life with processes in place to ensure that data doesn’t become forgotten. Records retention also plays a key part in data governance. A sound record retention schedule establishes rules for the defensible disposal or archiving of data. It’s then possible to retire and decommission a legacy system and its associated data according to the parameters in place.
  • Establish an Application Decommissioning Process. Your company should also have a standardized approach for application decommissioning that includes the associated data. If it’s necessary to retain the data, it should be archived on an alternate platform in accordance with your organization’s record retention schedule.
  • Incorporate Data Privacy into Your Merger and Acquisition Due Diligence. Merger and acquisition due diligence should include a clear understanding of data privacy roles, responsibilities, and processes. Review the systems you will be acquiring and develop a plan to address any data risks. Without this, the forgotten data of the company you are acquiring can make your organization vulnerable.
  • Review Data Backup Policies. Backup data is only intended to be used for disaster recovery and should not be used as an archive for data retrieval. There should be detailed processes in place to overwrite or destroy backups that are beyond their retention period. When you keep backup data beyond its intended purpose, you are introducing unnecessary risk into your organization.

In addition to security risk mitigation, managing legacy data effectively can provide cost savings for organizations. There are many hidden costs associated with maintaining outdated systems and technologies, including system maintenance, data migration, and compliance-related expenses.

Your best first steps

If you have concerns about where forgotten legacy data may be in your organization, there are some simple steps you can take to uncover it. Start by doing a scan of your network for any forgotten data. If old or unnecessary data is detected, delete it. If it’s necessary to keep it, be sure to archive it with the proper security safeguards in place. Then ensure you have a data management policy in place with your employees moving forward. If you have questions on any of these steps or how to address your forgotten data, reach out to our team of experts at Locknet Managed IT, an EO Johnson company. We’re here to help.



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