Computer forensic specialists have been making headlines in recent years, largely due to the high-profile computer security breaches. Computer forensic specialists and their unique skill set are able to investigate the causes of data breaches when they happen and work with companies and government agencies to protect against them before they ever occur. For every Equifax leak, there are hundreds more that will never make the front page, but still need to be investigated, which means plenty of work for these specialists.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) categorizes the work computer forensics examiners do under the “information security analyst” category. According to data from 2019, the demand for this job is expected to grow by 32 percent from 2018 to 2028, which is extraordinarily fast. At this rate of growth, more than 35,500 jobs are expected to be added during that time period (BLS 2019). Now is an opportune time to start training for work in this field.
Those who are employed as computer forensics examiners may work with law enforcement or with private firms. The main duties of this job are to retrieve information from computers and other types of electronic devices that store data in order to determine where crimes have been committed and how. Today, specialists could work on laptops, digital cameras, tablets, smartphones, flash drives, and more. Computer forensics examiners use specialized tools to help them with this job, and they need to be able to stay on top of all of the tools and technologies that are available to the criminals they are chasing.
Another part of the computer forensics job description could be to testify in court and to relate the evidence found during investigations. Often, those who are in the field will work with members of law enforcement, attorneys, and other forensic specialists to see if the collected evidence fits together in a legal case.
The job outlook for those who decide to follow this career path is quite bright. Because the world increasingly uses computers, it means that the world may need to have more specialists with the knowledge and know-how to handle the crimes that follow. As noted above, growth is expected to be quite fast in the information security analyst field. The BLS also collects data for the computer system analyst job description, which has some overlap with computer forensic examiners. According to the BLS, the computer system analyst field is expected to grow only 9 percent between 2018 and 2028 (BLS 2019). While not nearly as impressive as the information security analyst position, this rate is still faster than the expected rate of growth for all positions, on average, which is just 5 percent.
As with any career, the job prospects for a computer forensic examiner will depend largely on the experience and education that a person brings to the table. Those that have gained at least some experience working with computers, such as experience as a database administrator, will have better luck than those with a less technological background.
People who have an interest in the outlook for the computer forensic examiner career and who want to know more about the possibilities that it can offer will find a number of professional organizations that offer resources and information. The International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners (ISFCE), and the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS) are two organizations that can offer unique insights about this growing career.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2019), the median salary for information security analysts was $99,730 in 2019. Those in the lowest 10 percent earned $57,810 or less, while those in the highest 10 percent earned $158,860 annually or more.
However, when considering salary, it is always important to remember that a number of disparate facts go into determining the pay for a job. The amount of experience and time in the field working as a specialist, as well as the type of work, and the geographic location are all important contributing factors. Having certifications can help as well when it comes to negotiating for a larger salary, as is evidenced later in this article.
Because the BLS does not collect data specific to the computer forensic examiner specialty, it is worth examining other sources of data. According to salary aggregator PayScale.com (2020), a computer forensic analyst in the U.S. earns a median salary of $72,929 per year with the bottom ten percent earning $49,000 and the top 10 percent earning $118,000. The PayScale data is based on 341 computer forensic analysts reporting directly to the site. The fairly small sample size, as compared to the more than 100,000 computer security experts employed across the country, is one way to account for the discrepancy between Payscale and BLS data. Further, those that do computer forensics work may have titles that are somewhat different, including cybersecurity specialist, digital forensics examiner, or others.
Not every computer forensics expert will take the same path towards the career, but the following is one of the most common ways that someone enters the career:
While there are many factors that can influence how long it will take someone to pursue a career as a computer forensics examiner, on average a high school graduate who decides to complete a bachelor’s degree can start in an entry-level position in as little as four years, with an established career in six to eight years after high school.
So far, this article has alluded to the generalities of a computer forensics examiner. But what are the specific tasks that someone in this profession can expect to do each day? Here’s a list of a typical list of tasks and responsibilities for a computer forensics examiner:
Those that work for law enforcement or a government agency will likely have different daily tasks and requirements from those that work in the private sector.
Individuals that intend to stay in the field and want to grow in their career will want to pursue professional certification. As mentioned, there is no legal requirement for professional certification in this career, but it can be used as evidence of expertise and ultimately can be essential to career growth.
There are a few different certifications that one can pursue. The right choice for anyone pursuing this career will depend on that person’s specific career goals. The following are a few of the most commonly requested by employers of computer forensic examiners in the field.
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Rachel Drummond is a freelance writer, educator, and yogini from Oregon. She’s taught English to international university students in the United States and Japan for more than a decade and has a master’s degree in education from the University of Oregon. Rachel writes about meditation, yoga, coaching, and more on her blog (Instagram: @racheldrummondyoga).