Computer Forensics Career Guide: Bridging Criminal Justice and CIS
What is Computer Forensics?
How to Become a Computer Forensics Investigator
Career Options for Computer Forensics Concentrations
Common Skills Needed for a Career in Computer Forensics
Is Computer Forensics Right for Me?
There’s a familiar plot that plays out in crime dramas like CSI: a bad guy has hacked into a computer network, spread a sophisticated computer virus, or conducted illegal business online while seemingly covering his tracks. In comes the hero investigator, hunched over a computer. A few keystrokes and an hour later, the crime is solved and the criminal is caught.
While Hollywood’s depiction of computer forensics makes for compelling entertainment, the reality of this relatively new field is perhaps less exhilarating but nonetheless extremely rewarding. In the real world, computer forensics professionals may dedicate weeks, months, or even years to carefully extracting and recovering digital data used as critical evidence to solve crimes. Their work requires not only the technical skills to navigate emerging technologies, but unwavering patience and careful attention to detail, all in an effort to keep their community—and the world—safe.
From network hacking and financial scams, to identity thieves and online child predators—cyberattacks of all kinds are a serious threat that is only on the rise. If computer forensics sounds like an exciting career for you, then read on to learn what it takes to become a part of this fast-growing and ever-evolving field.
Computer forensics, also known as cyber forensics or digital forensics, is the investigation of digital data gathered as evidence in criminal cases. Law enforcement agencies and private firms fight cybercrime using computer forensics to track, locate and extract digital information needed for criminal investigations.
Computer forensics specialists search hard drives to uncover deleted or hidden files using file recovery programs and encryption decoding software. In addition to computers, these forensics specialists are also adept at gathering pertinent information from network servers, databases, smartphones, tablets and other digital devices.
Computer forensic investigators typically must earn a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or another similar area such as computer science. Some computer forensics professionals begin their careers in related areas such as law enforcement and combine their experience with a computer forensics training program and professional certification. Through these basic steps, Here are the recommended steps to beginning a career in computer forensics:
Step 1: Earn Your Degree
A bachelor’s degree in computer forensics or a similar area is generally required to become a computer forensics investigator. This degree will provide you with a foundation in investigation and computer use, emerging technologies, and techniques used in the industry. Along with professional experience, earning a master’s degree can further advance your career and open doors to senior positions in the government or private sector.
Step 2: Get Certified
There are many different types of certifications available for computer forensics specialists. Focused either on best practices in a particular concentration or specific software used in the industry, completion of a certification ensures that you have a firm grasp of the ethical and legal issues of the field, industry know-how and current tools. While certification is not a requirement for all positions, job applicants are looked upon more favorably when they have earned their certification.
Here are some of the most common certifications*:
Vendor-neutral certification (covering best practices in a specific area)
- Certified Forensic Computer Examiner (CFCE) – offered by The International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists
- Certified Computer Examiner (CCE) – offered by The International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners
- Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC) – offered by The SysAdmin Audit, Network, Security (SANS) Institute
Vendor-specific certification (covering specialized training in a specific developer’s software platforms)
- EnCase Certified Engineer (EnCE) – offered by Guidance Software
- AccessData Certified Examiner (ACE) – offered by AccessData
Aside from certifications, there are also training courses and programs available for further professional development through organizations such as the National Institute of Justice and the National Computer Forensics Institute. It is also important to note that some states require computer forensics investigators to obtain a private investigator license and requirements for this license varies by state.
Step 3: Find Your First Job
Computer forensics positions can be found at local, state, and federal government agencies, from city police departments to the National Security Agency (NSA), Homeland Security and the FBI (the lead federal agency for investigating cyberattacks by criminals, overseas adversaries and terrorists).* Computer forensics positions, such as a forensics computer analyst, can also be found in the private sector on a full-time or contractual basis at places such as banks, software development companies, law firms and accounting firms.
Step 4: Advance with Experience
With years of professional experience and knowledge, computer forensics investigators can advance their career (and their salary) by becoming a senior forensics investigator or starting their own private practice or consulting agency where they can support a variety of clients.
Computer forensics jobs can take on a variety of titles and responsibilities. Below is information regarding the current related job titles listed in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, as well as an additional listing of common job titles.
Computer Forensics Salary:
Information Security Analysts
Information Security Analysts are responsible for planning and executing security measures to protect an organization’s computer networks and systems.
28% (much faster than average)
Computer Systems Analysts
Computer Systems Analysts study an organization’s computer systems and procedures, and design solutions to help the organization operate more efficiently and effectively.
9% (as fast as average)
Related Job Titles:
Computer Forensics Analyst
Computer Forensics Investigator
Computer Forensics Technician
Cyber Security Analyst
Cyber Security Engineer
Digital Forensic Analyst
Digital Forensic Investigator
Forensic Computer Analyst
Forensic Data Analyst
To be successful in the field of computer forensics you’ll need to have a strong interest in technology and obtaining the skills and knowledge of digital storage devices, computer operating systems, commonly used computer programming languages and software applications.
A thorough understanding of the ethical and legal issues that arise within the digital forensics field is also a must. Since technology is always evolving, you’ll need to be someone who enjoys the challenge of constantly learning new things. Technical, analytical and critical thinking skills are essential, as is the ability to effectively communicate within an investigative team. Lastly, the sensitive nature of supporting law enforcement efforts necessitates honesty, patience, resourcefulness and problem-solving skills.
Computer forensics is an ever-evolving field. New challenges arise for computer forensics investigators as cybercrimes grow in frequency and complexity, and hardware and software advances. Computer forensics can be a stressful field, as you often need to find information quickly for a criminal investigation and criminals can be highly skilled at technology. On the other hand, computer forensics is a growing career field with many diverse employment opportunities. Some of these digital forensics jobs include becoming a forensic computer analyst or a cyber forensic investigator.
If you’re someone who would like to put your technology skills toward keeping the public safe, then a rewarding career in forensics computing is for you. The first step? A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or computer science from GMercyU!