The digitization of human communication has caused a huge variety of changes, some obvious and others unforeseen. One potentially underrated effect of digital device ubiquity is a new approach to investigating and solving crimes. Since a significant amount of infractions today revolve around — or at least involve — computers or smart devices, the field of digital forensics has arisen to unravel these incidents.
If you are interested in cybersecurity and investigation and want to put your problem-solving talents to work in this challenging and fast-moving field, you can pursue a role in computer forensics. From collecting digital evidence for law enforcement agencies to tracking the sources of cybercrimes in the private sector, there are several ways to work as a digital forensics analyst.
Wherever you seek out a digital forensics role, you’ll need an inquisitive mind and a strong background in computer science. Fortunately, you can build your cybersecurity expertise through graduate education, adding competencies that could prove pivotal in digital crime-fighting.
What Is Digital Forensics Used For?
Forensics, as traditionally defined, is the process of using scientific principles to collect and examine evidence that will help law enforcement agencies solve crimes. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics considers digital forensics a sub-discipline of this larger field. In crimes such as online scams, electronic fraud or identity theft schemes, much of the evidence is digital in nature. This calls for a different forensics process, with digital forensics analysts using advanced data collection and analysis techniques.
One thing to keep in mind about computer forensics is that as part of the law enforcement profession, there are strong regulations that govern how computer forensic examiners should gather and present their evidence. The findings of a digital forensics analyst will be expected to stand up in a court of law, where they could be the deciding factor in the conviction (or acquittal) of a suspected perpetrator.
Even in cases when crimes have not occurred wholly in the digital realm, computer evidence could still be essential in prosecution. The Department of Homeland Security explained that when computers or smartphones are used in the commission of a crime, they could be repositories of important data. GPS information is another potential form of digital evidence. Digital forensics departments have to work hard to stay ahead of the curve on new technology developments — unless analysts understand the latest devices and operating systems, they may miss clues.
What Is a Digital Forensics Analyst?
Digital forensics analyst is the primary role associated with collecting and analyzing computer evidence. PayScale indicated that these professionals must be prepared to perform day-to-day cybersecurity tasks such as vulnerability assessments, and also engage in studious research of systems and networks, both domestic and worldwide. Analysts will also be called upon to work with experts in other disciplines to make a complete case, while being careful to maintain compliance with all necessary regulations.
Not all digital forensics experts work in the public sector. Cybersecurity Magazine highlighted the role played by private digital forensics in corporate IT departments, working on incident response in cases targeting business networks or infrastructure. Though these are employees of independent companies defending their resources rather than law enforcement officers building a case, they should still follow legal procedure in collecting their evidence. After all, a serious cybersecurity incident discovered by a company’s IT team could easily become a legal matter.
What Does a Digital Forensics Analyst Do?
The daily tasks assigned to a computer forensics investigators will vary depending on the situation. In a single case, there are several steps involved in gathering evidence. Once law enforcement officers hand over devices such as hard drives, analysts must then delve into the data, which may involve breaking through security countermeasures. They will also have to perform accurate data analysis to ensure the content they are retrieving is relevant. Quantities and complexity of information are on the rise, making this part of the role challenging.
After extracting evidence from digital resources, analysts have to present their findings in a form that other people working on the case can understand. PayScale notes collaboration and communication are must-have skill sets, as well as the ability to work efficiently alone. Digital forensics tasks are a mixture of solitary investigation and group problem-solving.
No matter the duties computer forensics analysts are called on to perform on a given day, they must be studious in their note-taking and careful about how they handle and retain evidence. PayScale added that in the course of investigating computer evidence, it’s common to come across personally identifiable information such as financial data or photos. Being compliant and responsible in dealing with such content is essential.
How Much Does a Digital Forensics Analyst Earn?
Working in digital forensics can be financially rewarding, reflecting the highly specialized nature of the related roles. Law enforcement agencies and corporate IT departments need professionals who are able to not only carry out criminal investigations effectively but also comply with stringent guidelines while doing so. There is no substitute for the combination of computer science and legal expertise needed to work in these positions.
According to PayScale’s data, as of February 2021, the average annual salary for a forensic computer analyst is $74,388. Of course, with a long tenure in the field, and the experience that comes along with this service, professionals can increase their earning power as digital forensics analysts well beyond the base level. The average salary for the top 10% of earners in the field is approximately $120,000.
How Do You Become a Digital Forensics Analyst?
As with any role bound by strict legal requirements and requiring precise technical knowledge, anyone seeking to become a digital forensics analyst will need high-level education and training in the related concepts, along with relevant work experience. If you are interested in joining this demanding but rewarding profession, you can start directing yourself down this career path by pursuing the right opportunities.
The BLS specified that a great deal of the training for forensics workers takes place on the job. This means the best way to learn the specific legal requirements, procedures and forensic tools associated with investigations is to seek out entry-level positions in labs. The exact rules about how to perform forensics work differ by region, which means the most relevant learning environment about a specific department or organization is with that employer.
Beyond the investigative and regulatory sides of digital forensics, there is also a cybersecurity angle. Professionals working in this field need to keep up with technology developments and changes in the way digital evidence is generated and stored. Fortunately, these are the types of subjects covered in graduate-level cybersecurity degree programs.
What Degree Programs Can Prepare You for a Digital Forensics Role?
By earning your online Master of Science in Cybersecurity degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, you are actively building your expertise with the way modern cybercriminals operate, as well as learning the ins and outs of networks and endpoints of all kinds. The curriculum ranges from law to mobile device use, and has been designed by subject matter experts with deep connections to the world of IT.
Since the cybersecurity program is taught entirely online, you have the opportunity to fit classes into your existing full-time work schedule. This freedom allows you to continue to build work experience in your day job while receiving a world-class education in cybersecurity and related concepts. If you don’t have a bachelor’s-level technology background, you can still enter the online MS in Cybersecurity program via the six credit-hour bridge program.
The move to a more digital way of life has irreversibly affected the way crimes are both committed and investigated. Whether in law enforcement or the private sector, you can find a rewarding career solving these digital-age infractions.
Visit the online MS in Cybersecurity program page to learn more and determine how this degree can fit into your plans.
How to Get into Cybersecurity With a Master of Science in Cybersecurity
Why is Cybersecurity Important?
PayScale — Average Forensic Computer Analyst Salary
Cybersecurity Magazine — Introduction to Digital Forensics
Department of Homeland Security — Cyber Forensics
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — Forensic Science Technicians