In this captivating article, we’re diving headfirst into the exhilarating world of Digital Forensics.
We’ll explore the smorgasbord of career paths and opportunities that await those eager to make their mark in this ever-expanding field. Digital Forensics professionals boast an impressive array of skills and responsibilities, coming from all walks of life.
These digital sleuths often go by a variety of titles, such as:
- Digital Forensics Investigator
- Digital Forensics Analyst
- Digital Forensics Examiner
- Digital Forensics Professional
Now, in the realm of law enforcement, there’s a subtle distinction between a Digital Forensic Investigator and a Digital Forensics Analyst. It all boils down to whether they’re a badge-wielding officer or a whip-smart civilian in their organization.
Venture into the private sector, and you’ll find a veritable buffet of job titles, including:
- Digital Forensics Consultant
- Digital Forensics Engineer
- Digital Forensics Technician
- Digital Forensics Specialist
Oh, and just to keep things interesting, sometimes you’ll see “Computer Forensics” used in place of “Digital Forensics.”
You might’ve also stumbled upon the acronym DFIR during your digital travels, which stands for Digital Forensics and Incident Response. Sure, it’s a popular term, but let’s set the record straight: Digital Forensics and Incident Response are, by and large, two separate and unique positions.
So, buckle up, folks, as we zero in on the Digital Forensics side of DFIR in this riveting article.
Digital Forensics – Is This the Career Path for You?
- The nitty-gritty of working in computer forensics
- The must-have skills and abilities to thrive
- Educational prerequisites
- Starting salaries
- And so much more.
Climbing the ladder in Digital Forensics?
Hone these essential skills:
- Documenting evidence, adhering to processes, and crafting top-notch reports
- Mastering investigation and ace personal interviewing techniques
- Polishing written, verbal, and interpersonal communication skills
- Developing a keen eye for detail and following rules, guidelines, and processes like a pro
- Showcasing presentation skills to break down technical jargon for non-technical folks
- Building a solid understanding of domestic, local, and international laws
In the thrilling world of computer forensics, there’s always a demand for professionals with the chops to examine digital media, identify, recover, analyze, and present facts with unwavering conviction.
Your verbal and written prowess will take center stage, as you might find yourself under the spotlight in a court of law, captivating the attention of judges and juries alike.
The global digital forensics market size reached US$ 5.8 Billion in 2022. Looking forward, IMARC Group expects the market to reach US$ 10.9 Billion by 2028, exhibiting a growth rate (CAGR) of 9.9% during 2023-2028.
Why wait when the thrilling realm of Digital Forensics beckons?
Boundless opportunities are ripe for the picking if you’re game to invest time and energy.
So, without further ado, let’s dive deeper and discover what lies ahead…
The Lowdown on Computer Forensics
Computer forensics is a riveting subset of forensic science.
This exhilarating field harnesses investigative prowess and razor-sharp analysis to unearth evidence lurking in computers, and more often than not, mobile devices.
To piece together the puzzle, pinpoint the culprit, and as one esteemed DF investigator quipped, “Place the Suspect Behind the Keyboard.” (~ Brett Shavers)
Aim High: The Goal of Computer Forensics
Computer forensics strives to collect, scrutinize, and preserve evidence from digital media in a manner fit for the courtroom.
Typical job duties can include:
- Investigating policy breaches, hacks, leaks, and corporate compliance
- Probing sexual assaults, murders, and violent acts (in law enforcement)
- Documenting evidence, crafting reports, and briefing findings
- Communicating investigation results with case managers and supervisors
- Analyzing forensic evidence and drawing conclusions
- Conducting witness interviews and testifying in court (if necessary)
- Offering technical guidance and policy recommendations
Digital media prime for examination includes:
- Personal & work computers
- Smartphones & mobile devices
- Flash drives
- Cloud storage, and more.
In today’s hyper-connected world, crucial evidence is often unearthed from mobile devices.
These pocket-sized gadgets can hold:
- Chat conversations
- GPS locations
- Phone call logs
The real challenge with mobile devices?
Gaining forensic access to the treasure trove of data within.
Mobile devices often deploy intricate encryption, hindering or severely restricting examiners’ access to the data. Even possessing the device’s password won’t necessarily grant full access – you might only view the data but not extract it in a forensically sound manner.
In the ever-evolving landscape of technology, security, and privacy laws, staying on your toes is the name of the game for computer forensics professionals.
For instance, in some regions, strong-arming a suspect into revealing their passwords could render the obtained information inadmissible in court. On the flip side, other regions might compel the suspect to cough up their password or risk facing additional criminal charges.
Crafty suspects could play along, providing a password to one encrypted container, while the actual incriminating material stays tucked away in another container, unlocked by a different password and hidden from the prying eyes of law enforcement.
In such scenarios, your technological prowess, understanding of encryption, and grasp of the capabilities and limitations of forensic software tools become indispensable.
In today’s high-stakes world of criminal investigations, the expertise of a computer forensic professional is often the key to cracking the case wide open.
From murder to fraud, sexual assault to child abduction, and even motor vehicle accidents, digital forensics is instrumental in unearthing clues that shed light on the crime, the perpetrators, and their motives.
The evidence could be:
- A file on a computer
- A message from a phone chat app
- Geolocation data from a cloud account
- Logs from a vehicle’s infotainment system
Pursuing a forensic degree equips you with the skills and processes needed to excel in the field. And obtaining forensic certifications takes you a step further, delving into the nitty-gritty of forensic software.
Forensic certifications often hold sway in the courts, lending credibility to the testimony of Computer Forensic Examiners.
In many cases, the prosecution or defense might want the Computer Forensic Examiner to be designated as an “expert witness,” allowing them to offer opinion evidence that transcends mere facts. In these situations, it’s crucial that you, as a digital forensics professional, are not only knowledgeable and precise but also keenly aware of the boundaries of your expertise.
Public Sector Employers
Digital forensics offers a diverse range of job opportunities in both the public and private sectors.
In the public sector, law enforcement is probably the most prominent employer, boasting high-profile positions for digital forensic examiners.
This extends beyond local, state, or federal police services to encompass other enforcement agencies such as customs, tax enforcement, and the military.
While many law enforcement positions are occupied by sworn police officers, some organizations also hire civilians to perform digital forensic analyses.
Sworn officers who take on digital forensics roles undergo extensive training, equipping them with the skills to become top-notch examiners for criminal investigations.
Though the training represents a significant investment, the hands-on investigative experience officers bring to the table is invaluable when crafting forensic reports for court proceedings.
Moreover, sworn officers and military personnel often receive lower pay than their civilian counterparts, translating into additional cost savings for these agencies.
Private Sector Employers
Not all computer forensic professionals don the uniforms of military or law enforcement.
It’s becoming increasingly popular for big and small corporations to bring computer forensic experts on board to investigate various issues. Such scenarios may involve allegations of employees or contractors stealing or leaking sensitive information like customer data (sometimes dubbed corporate espionage).
In today’s fast-paced digital world, forensics experts might be called to probe cyber breaches or ransomware attacks. In these cases, they’ll be part of the Incident Response (IR) team.
Large corporations may offer higher salaries to computer forensic experts to secure their loyalty. Consequently, a forensic examiner with limited private sector experience could earn significantly more than a seasoned computer forensic expert in government service.
Regardless of the job setting, a computer forensics professional’s primary responsibility is to carry out structured investigations using skills and techniques acquired from forensic training while documenting their work to ensure admissibility in court.
Writing and speaking clearly about your work is a critical aspect of a computer forensic examiner’s role.
Your audience – your supervisor, investigator, judge, and jury – may possess limited computer knowledge. However, they will make crucial decisions based on your work and, more importantly, your ability to articulate your actions.
Without the capacity to explain your work coherently, your degree and certifications might not take you far in your career or could result in lost civil and criminal cases.
Education & Schooling
Pursuing higher education and obtaining a degree in computer forensics is almost always beneficial. Some sources suggest that computer forensics professionals with a degree earn nearly twice as much as those with only forensic certifications and no degree.
Most employers will prefer you to have a bachelor’s degree in forensic science, computer science, criminal justice, or another related field.
The advantage of holding a bachelor’s degree and certifications is that it can make you stand out from the competition and be more attractive to potential employers.
However, don’t worry; there are plenty of job opportunities in the forensics field for those who only possess a forensics certification (especially if you are in law enforcement).
If you’re interested in pursuing a post-secondary degree or certificate, the following digital forensic programs can help you on your journey:
Some well-known forensic certifications include the following:
- CISA – Certified Information Systems Auditor
- CISSP – Certified Information Systems Security Professional
- CCE – Certified Computer Examiner
- CFCE – Certified Forensic Computer Examiner
- GIAC – Global Information Assurance Certification
- GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA)
- GIAC Advanced Smartphone Forensics (GASF)
- GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner (GCFE)
- GIAC Network Forensic Analyst (GNFA)
- GIAC Reverse Engineering Malware (GREM)
- GIAC Security Essentials (GSEC)
Forensic Software Vendor Training and Certificates can also be beneficial. Some examples include:
- ACE – AccessData Certified Examiner
- BelkaCE – Belkasoft
- EnCE – EnCase Certified Engineer
- Cellebrite Certified Operator (CCO)
- Cellebrite Certified Physical Analyst (CCPA)
- Cellebrite Certified Mobile Examiner (CCME)
- XRY – XRY Certification
- X-PERT – X-Ways Professional in Evidence Recovery Techniques
- BlackBag Technologies
- Certified Blacklight Examiner (CBE)
- Certified Mobilyze Operator (CMO)
- Mac and iOS Certified Forensic Examiner (MICFE)
Other certificates you may also consider, that provide a more general computer foundation are:
- CompTIA A+
- CompTIA Network+
- CompTIA Security+
Certification courses are typically short courses, often less than 10 classes.
Each certification course has their own requirements and can include professional time spent in a forensics related field.
It’s best to research each certification you’re planning to take to ensure you meet the requirements before deciding to take it.
Expected Starting Salary & Benefits
The starting salary for a computer forensics professional depends on various factors, including whether you’re employed in the public or private sector.
Possessing an associate degree can boost your forensics salary and make job hunting more manageable.
Having both a forensics degree and at least one forensics certification makes you more appealing to employers and allows you to compete effectively with other computer forensic professionals.
While obtaining certifications might seem like a daunting task, in the long run, it contributes to better job security and potentially a higher salary.
As with any job, your salary highly depends on your geographic location and employer.
Salaries in the United States
There is a large range of salaries in the US.
The average Forensic Computer Analyst in 2023 makes $75,525 / year (or $37.76 an hour).
On the high end you can expect to make up $129,000 / year (approx. $64.50 an hour).
On the lower end salaries can start at $55,000 / year (approx. $27.50 an hour).
(Source: Payscale.com )
Salaries across Canada
Across Canada wages are very competitive. Municipal Law Enforcement has advertised civilian positions with approximately hourly rates. $34.00 – 55.40 per hour (based on 2017 pay scales).
This breaks down to approximately $70,500 – $115,000 / year.
If the fascinating world of digital forensics piques your interest, if you’re driven to help solve crimes, uncover compromised computer systems, or catch rogue employees, then don’t hesitate – now is the perfect moment to start preparing.
A wealth of job opportunities are available, and the salaries are generally quite competitive compared to other fields.
Kick off your journey by learning independently, enrolling in courses, earning certifications, and applying for positions.
Digital forensics is an exhilarating and demanding field, but with time and effort, you can make a meaningful impact.