There is no denying that we live in a digital age. Everything from health records to personal correspondence now comes in its own digital package and can easily be transmitted to any corner of the globe with just the push of a button.
While this certainly makes things convenient for everyday activities, it can also be a convenient conduit for criminal activity. As the internet and personal computer technology has taken hold, so has the need to law enforcement and digital forensic experts who can trace, collect, and analyze evidence that lives on computers and the internet. In general terms, this field is known as digital forensics. Digital forensics encompasses computer, mobile, and network forensics.
Computer forensics specifically applies to legal evidence as it can be recovered from computers, including personal desktops and laptops, and digital storage media such as hard drives and even CD-ROMs. Mobile forensics also applies to legal evidence recovery, but is specific to mobile devices such as smartphones and tablet computers. Network forensics is a specialty field that focuses on monitoring and analyzing computer network traffic, which is more ephemeral than concrete digital data, but still falls under the umbrella of computer forensics.
Many digital forensic experts may have experience in all of these categories and indeed many investigations require some amount of overlap in expertise. For simplicity, we will use computer forensics as a term that applies to all three of these fields. However, some experts may choose to specialize in just one, becoming highly focused consultants in only one branch of digital forensics. Whether you want to specialize or simply further your options as a digital forensics experts, you may find it worthwhile to investigate the educational and career opportunities that exist in these similar, yet varied fields.
In most cases, computer forensic experts are referred to as Computer Forensic Analysts. an appellation may be added to indicate seniority, such as Senior Computer Forensics Analyst. Consultants may be referred to as such, but generally “computer” and “forensic” are both included in any job title for this type of position.
Further, there are a few different career paths that are fairly common for computer forensic experts. In general, computer forensic experts enter the field either from an information technology (IT) or law enforcement background. Both trajectories have their advantages.
An IT professional who comes to computer forensics will have the advantage of deeper knowledge of computer systems and technical experience. On the other hand, law enforcement officers who decide to specialize in computer forensics will come to the field with a more thorough understanding of the laws of evidence, which can certainly be helpful in criminal as well as civil cases.
When considering a career as a computer forensics expert, or indeed any career, it is important to consider how the career is expected to grow over the coming years. As with any career, opportunities and salaries can vary greatly. Experience is a major factor in determining what professional opportunities may be available for any individual looking to pursue this career, but those without a great deal of professional experience may want to look towards educational opportunities as well as professional certifications in order to expand the possibilities for their career advancement.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency tasked with tracking the growth of different careers and occupations, available positions for Forensic Science Technicians are expected to grow by 6% from, 2012 to 2022. However, this career description does not match perfectly with that of a computer forensic expert and instead includes many other lab activities such as DNA analysis and crime scene investigation. To get a better understanding of how job growth might differ for computer-specific forensic investigators, we must also account for job growth in the field of Information Security Analysts. These professionals, largely employed by computer companies and consulting firms rather than law enforcement, are expected to see opportunities grow by a whopping 37% through 2022 (BLS, 2012). While it is not a perfect science, looking at these two professions and knowing as we do that computers are now an integral part of criminal investigation, we can expect that the outlook for computer forensic investigators will lay somewhere between 6% and 37% through 2022.
Many Computer Forensics Experts work for local law enforcement agencies, such as city police forces. However, federal law enforcement, such as the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Security Agency also have a need for such expertise. These types of jobs may be much more difficult to obtain since there is typically a lot of competition for jobs at these agencies. Those potential computer forensic experts who ultimately want to work for one of these federal agencies may do well to first gain experience in smaller, local agencies. Computer forensic experts that wish to be members of the police force as well will have to complete police academy training prior to employment.
Of course, not all local law enforcement has the budget or need for a full-time computer forensic expert. In these cases, they may work with independent consultants or with state investigative units. Independent consultants may be able to charge much higher rates that salaried law enforcement agency employees, but the work will be much more erratic and may not include such benefits as health insurance or paid vacation.
Working for any type of law enforcement, it should be noted, will require a thorough background check and drug testing. Potential applicants must have a clean criminal background if they wish to work in law enforcement.
Computer forensic investigation units are also found in the private sector. One of the most common places to find computer forensic experts is at top auditing firms, including the “Big Four”. This list consists of:
All of these firms have separate computer forensics units. Like law enforcement employees, these experts are tasked with uncovering computer-based crime. Because they work in concert with the companies’ auditors, those crimes these particular employees generally work on are those like embezzlement or tax evasion.
Similarly, computer forensic experts may work for law firms as employees or consultants during civil actions or simply for independent investigators, including private detectives. Of course, large firms and law enforcement are not the right fit for everyone, but you can still put computer forensics expertise to good use. Take a look at the following for more ideas:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not separately track salaries for computer forensic technicians, but they do track the outlook for Forensic Science Technicians, which includes computer forensics. These professionals have a median salary of $52,840 per year, which amounts to $25.41 per hour (BLS, 2012). This salary is significantly higher than the median salary for all occupations, which was at $34,750 per year, whereas life, physical, and social science technicians overall earn a median salary of $41,130 per year, making forensic technicians quite valuable.
According to the INFOSEC Institute, an information security training company, computer forensic analysts and investigators “who work for state or federal law enforcement agencies usually earn a starting salary of between $50,000 and $75,000” per year. As with most professional positions, salary increases can be expected as seniority and experience accumulate. Those computer forensic experts who choose to work in the private sector can generally expect higher starting salaries, but that largely depends on experience, certifications, and of the course the employer.
Computer forensic experts are needed all over the country. Due to an influx of hiring at federal agencies, the Washington, D.C. area can be a good place to look for competitive salaries, but the majority of local law enforcement agencies have at least some need for computer forensic experts.
In general, geographic areas with higher costs of living will offer higher median salaries for computer forensic experts. For example, a forensic technician in California can expect to earn a median annual salary of $73,500, which is significantly higher than the national median rate of $54,400. At the same time, forensic science technicians in Florida earn a median annual salary of $42,700, which is comparatively low.
Again we should point on that this job category as tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics may not be exactly correlated with computer forensics specifically, but the data is still relevant to relative salaries.
Because computer forensics is still a developing field, there is no state mandated certifications for this kind of work. That means that anyone with expertise in the field may be able to find work in any state and have his or her skills translate easily to a new geographic area.
There are a few different avenues that are most common for computer forensic experts to take in beginning their careers. Some experts come to their career first as law enforcement officers. These individuals may be patrol officers when they are first exposed to the inner workings of the computer forensic laboratory. To take this route, potential forensic experts will first need to apply and be accepted to a local police academy and complete that rigorous training. It then may take years to make the shift from police work to forensic investigation. The benefit of tackling the career this way is that investigators will already have an ingrained knowledge of how police investigations proceed as well as the rules of evidence.
There are also many computer forensics experts who come to the career from the Information Technology (IT) background. These individuals may have worked as systems administrators or technical support at any number of private institutions before deciding to pivot and work in law enforcement or investigations. For someone with this type of background to qualify for a computer forensic expert job, he or she would likely have to complete at least one type of computer forensic investigation certification. Some of the available certifications include:
Finally, many institutions of higher learning are realizing the demand for computer forensics and security experts and as such are beginning to offer degrees in computer forensics. These types of degrees give potential investigators a thorough background in computer systems as well as investigation techniques.
The right path to a computer forensics career depends largely on the individual, where he is in his career, and how much time and money she is willing to devote to furthering her education.
No matter which path you choose to take, there are options for beginning or continuing your computer forensics education online. Earning a certificate in computer forensics, either partially or fully online, can be a great way to jumpstart a career in the field without having to spend four years on a bachelor’s degree. A number of institutions offer this kind of education, including:
Those students who want the full experience and depth that a traditional undergraduate or graduate degree program can offer have a few online options to choose from, including the following:
Bachelor of Science in Computer Science: Cyber Security
Online Master's in Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics
Digital Forensics Grad Certificate