Those who choose computer forensics as a career fight crime with software, not guns. These modern detectives retrieve and analyze data from hard drives, networks and wireless devices such as smartphones to solve cases involving theft, security breaches, fraud and sexual harassment for law enforcement agencies and private firms. The InfoSec Institute expects the demand for computer forensics analysts and investigators to remain strong as cybercrime and reliance on digital information grows.
A career in computer forensics can land you a job in information technology -- IT, security management, computer forensics analysis, cyberforensics technology or systems and network administration. Employers fall into four categories: law enforcement, finance, academic and consulting. Assignments may involve reconstructing a trail of online activity, cracking encrypted networks or getting information from damaged or erased hard drives. Your cases may range from identity theft to terrorism, secret bank accounts and to fraudulent transactions.
Regardless of which category you work in or what title you hold, the work you do in computer forensics entails preserving suspect IT assets, electronic discovery, analysis and documentation of any data revealed and, when necessary, testifying in court about your findings. Computer forensic investigators use images they make of hard drives in order to access potential evidence. They study the metadata, or document attributes; chatroom and browser history, emails, and data transfers to flash drives. Their analyses reveal levels of intent, action and involvement needed for criminal proceedings. Forensic computer analysts’ meticulous documentation of their work ensures authenticity and admissibility of digital evidence.
According to the TechRepublic website, you can acquire the skills needed to enter the field of computer forensics in several ways. Although most employers prefer formal training gained by earning a bachelor's degree in computer forensics, some employers, such as police departments, branches of the military and businesses with IT divisions, offer on-the-job training. You may need to specialize in banking-related software to work for a financial institution, or criminal investigation procedures for a position in law enforcement. If you go the self-taught route and combine that with several years of experience dealing with computers and related technology, you must be well-versed in proper evidence handling and know how to serve as an expert witness. Your professional credibility stands on a clean background check to succeed in this field.
Computer forensics experts must be able to explain technical subjects in simple language that those in a courtroom can understand. They have a knack for recognizing patterns and correlations in the evidence they retrieve. Looking through data for several days can become tedious and monotonous, so a willingness to stick with a problem until it's solved is crucial. The job goes beyond troubleshooting and, as veteran computer forensics investigator John Irvine writes on ForensicFocus.com, can be disturbing, especially on cases dealing with child pornography and counterterrorism.
Certification and Licensure
Although some employers require certification in computer forensics or in specific software tools, earning one or more certifications enhances your professional credibility. Your options include four key designations, each with different eligibility criteria: certified computer examiner from the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners, Certified Forensic Computer Examiner offered by International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists, the EC-Council's Computer Hacking Forensic Investigator and ASIS International's Professional Certified Investigator. Popular certifications from software vendors include AssessData, ProDiscover and EnCase. Certification may be an option, but licensure may be necessary. The authors of "Computer Forensics Jumpstart" note that many states require computer forensics practitioners to hold a private investigator license.
According to InfoSec, salaries in the government sector can range from $50,000 to $75,000 per year. Private corporations generally pay from $50,000 to $60,000, while senior managers and consultants can earn upwards of $200,000.
- InfoSec Institute: Computer Forensics Investigator
- You Should Go to School: Wireless Computer Forensics Careers
- TechRepublic: So You Want to Be a Computer Forensics Expert
- USAToday: Want CSI Without the Blood? Investigate Computer Forensics
- Forensic Focus: The Darker Side of Computer Forensics
- Computer Forensics Jumpstart; Michael G. Solomon et al.
Trudy Brunot began writing in 1992. Her work has appeared in "Quarterly," "Pennsylvania Health & You," "Constructor" and the "Tribune-Review" newspaper. Her domestic and international experience includes human resources, advertising, marketing, product and retail management positions. She holds a master's degree in international business administration from the University of South Carolina.