For those interested in becoming 21st century crimefighters, the field of computer forensics can be a rewarding career choice. Cybercrime has been on the rise in recent years, widely publicized after big name data breaches at companies like Equifax and Whole Foods. Digital crimes such as fraud, computer terrorism, data theft, denial of service attacks, and technological espionage leave electronic trails, and computer forensics experts are tasked with putting together the pieces.
So how does one become a digital forensics professional? Many of these aspiring computer crimes experts begin by enrolling in a two- to four-year computer forensics program. These programs offer courses such as investigative techniques, computer ethics, white collar crime, mobile forensics, and laws of searching & seizing digital property. Following graduation, a person may be eligible for work in digital consulting, cybersecurity, criminal investigation, and counter-terrorism.
Read on to discover what to expect from a computer forensics college—both online and traditional on-campus programs—in addition to learning about school accreditation and professional certification options.
Not surprisingly, there is an abundance of digital forensics programs offered online. These web-based certificate and degree programs at various levels can be ideal for working professionals, parents, and other people who can benefit from the convenience of a flexible distance-based education. For online programs, it is important for applicants to verify that there are not enrollment restrictions based on a person’s state of residence. Some states are not authorized to provide web-based education to students residing in other states. These regional rules, also referred to as “state authorizations,” can generally be found on program websites.
There is a variety of online certificates in computer forensics. Some help to prepare students for entry-level work in the field with basic instruction in computer crime investigative tools, data forensics, and other fundamentals. Other more advanced digital forensics programs teach specialized skills such as forensic accounting to compliment the person’s education or professional experience.
Who should enroll in an online digital certificate program in computer forensics?
The entry-level programs are open to high school graduates with strong backgrounds in computer science, math, logic, and statistics. Other more advanced certificate programs may be ideal for those with more developed technological skills including a bachelor’s degree in computer science, specific certifications, or competencies (e.g., A+, Net+), or significant experience (e.g., computer programming).
Featured Online Digital Forensics Certificates
Penn Foster Career School provides an entry-level online forensic examiner certificate program. Using real case studies to illustrate the competencies of the profession, Penn Foster’s self-paced coursework includes units on the privacy of information, cybercrime, and hackers. The program typically takes 10 months to complete and also teaches students how to set up their own forensics lab with the appropriate software (i.e., “tools of the trade”) for digital crime investigations.
The University of Rhode Island (URI) offers an online graduate certificate in digital forensics to professionals who are interested in targeted graduate coursework but are unable to commit to a full master’s program. Courses include digital forensics, file system analysis, and advanced incident response. Although having an A+ certification is a prerequisite to entry, URI offers a free, optional online course the summer before the student matriculates into the program. URI also offers a professional certificate in digital forensics for those without four-year degrees. This latter option is available in two distinct concentrations: windows investigations and incident response investigations.
For those looking to go the distance in the realm of digital forensics, there are a number of online degree programs available.
Who should enroll in an online computer forensics degree program?
Online degree programs are convenient for people with professional, familial, or other types of commitments which require flexibility in scheduling. Prerequisites and application requirements for these programs may include specific coursework (e.g., statistics, math, computer science), letters of recommendation, personal essays, test scores (e.g., Graduate Record Administration [GRE]), interviews, and a minimum GPA. Graduate programs also typically require not only a bachelor’s degree, but also sufficient training in computer programming and even some professional experience (e.g., criminology).
Featured Online Degrees in Digital Forensics
St. Petersburg College of Florida provides an online associate of science (AS) in digital forensics and computer investigations. As part of this program, students complete their computer related crime investigation certificate, in addition to courses in criminal justice, file system forensic analysis, and internet pornography investigations, among others.
Champlain University offers a 100 percent online bachelor’s of science (BS) degree in computer forensics & digital investigations. The program has six convenient annual start-dates and includes classes such as mobile forensics, operating system forensics, and foundations of cybersecurity. As part of the curricula, students have the option to pursue a certification in their specialization of choice. Furthermore, the school has been recognized by the National Security Agency (NSA) as a Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education.
The University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) hosts an online master of science (MS) in digital forensics & cyber investigation program. It requires 36 credits of coursework in areas such as human aspects of cybersecurity, digital forensics investigation, and cyber incident analysis & response. As part of the curriculum, students complete a capstone project—an opportunity to advance scientific research in a student-selected specialization—and UMGC even offers this program as part of a dual degree path combined with a master of business administration (MBA) to interested candidates.
The University of Central Florida (UCF) provides an online, interdisciplinary MS in digital forensics. This program—developed in collaboration with the National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS)—involves 30 credit hours of courses including wireless security & forensics, malware & software vulnerability analysis, and distributed processing of digital evidence. UCF requires minimal campus attendance and students choose between completing a thesis or a supervised internship as part of the program requirements.
There is also a wealth of on-campus certificates and degrees in computer forensics. The prerequisites and application requirements are typically similar to the ones outlined above in the online certificates and degrees.
Here is a selection of traditional, on-campus certificates in digital forensics:
The Boston University Metropolitan College (MET) offers a blended (i.e., web-based with some on-campus requirements) certificate in digital forensics. The curricula, ideal for bachelor’s degree holders with programming experience, includes rigorous instruction in data mining, network forensics, and business data communication. Graduates from this digital forensics program are prepared to use computer forensics software in criminal investigations, oversee forensic analysis, determine how a hacker gained access, and testify in a courtroom.
Madison Area Technical College in Wisconsin offers a certificate in digital forensics through its Truax campus. The program teaches students about the acquisition, analysis, and legal uses of digital evidence, particularly as it is applied to civil, criminal, and internal investigations. It may be an ideal option for those working in law enforcement or IT security. This certificate is designed to support working professionals wanting to gain more digital forensics experience or pivot their knowledge into a four-year bachelor’s degree program.
Finally, for students who are seeking a more traditional degree program with on-campus, face-to-face interactions, there are some quality options available.
Featured Degrees in Digital Forensics
Missouri Southern State University (MSSU) offers a unique bachelor of science (BS) in computer information science and criminal justice administration with an emphasis in computer forensics. This multidisciplinary degree provides a broad-based education to prepare students to secure computer networks, including the extraction, documentation, and analysis of digital evidence. Students in this dual degree program earn double majors in computer information science as well as criminal justice administration and this program is ideal for those who want to work in computer forensics for corporations or government.
Sam Houston State University (SHSU)—based in Huntsville, Texas—hosts a 30- to 36-credit master of science (MS) in digital forensics. SHSU has convenient fall and spring enrollment periods with classes such as network cybersecurity, file systems forensics, and a directed management and development project.
The state-of-the-art facilities at their Center of Excellence in Digital Forensics include network security and data recovery labs. This program is a hybrid program (i.e., a mix of online and face-to-face coursework). Students with a computer science or criminal justice major or minor are eligible to apply for the program; others may need to take prerequisite courses in STEM disciplines.
Purdue University in Indiana offers a bachelor of science in cybersecurity as well as a master of science (MS) and PhD in computer and information technology with a specialization in cyber forensics.
Students in the ABET-accredited bachelor’s program put their theoretical knowledge to practice through industry partnerships In addition to the requirements of the MS and PhD degree and the thesis option, students must complete 15 credits of targeted cyber forensics training in areas such as malware, file systems, and cloud/virtual environments. This program may be ideal for candidates with an undergraduate major in computer science or a related discipline who are interested in digital forensics.
For many forensics programs, the gold standard in accreditation is the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Council (FEPAC). This organization, however, focuses mainly on forensic hard sciences such as chemistry and biotechnology. Computer forensics programs, by contrast, may be accredited by various programmatic or institutional agencies.
One of the programmatic accreditation organizations is the Computer Sciences Accreditation Board (CSAB), the computer science and technology component of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). CSAB is responsible for creating and defining the requirements for accreditation of programs relating to computer science, information technology, and technological systems.
There are also several institutional accreditation bodies which evaluate schools as a whole. There are currently six common bodies which accredit schools according to region:
It’s advisable to seek out programs or institutions which are approved by recognized accreditation bodies. These organizations gauge program or school effectiveness by evaluating facilities, faculty, curricula, student outcomes, and other criteria.
Finally, there is a wide range of certifications available to digital forensics professionals. From nearly two dozen options, here are a few of the most common (and desired) professional certifications:
The International Society of Computer Examiners (ISCE) provides the certified computer examiner (CCE) designation. Some benefits of this certification include access to the CCE list-serve which provides employment opportunities; receipt of continuing education credit hours (CPEs) for related certifications; and various software discounts. ISCE reports that the CCE “has evolved into one of the most desired certifications in the digital forensics industry.”
The International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council)—accredited by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Department of Defense (DoD), among others—offers a number of certifications in the field including the computer hacking forensic investigator (CHFI) credential. Candidates must pass the 150-question exam with at least 70 percent correct.
The International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS)—accredited by the esteemed Forensic Specialties Accreditation Board (FSAB)—provides a rigorous certified forensic computer examiner (CFCE) certification program. This process involves the completion of two phases: a peer review phase with four practical case studies and a certification phase comprising a 40-day “hard drive problem” as well as a 14-day knowledge-based objective test.
Depending on one’s career goals, it may be advisable to seek proprietary certifications for popular tools in digital forensics such as AccessData or X-Ways Forensics. CFCE certifications are valid for three years and require a proficiency exercise to be completed online as well as 40 hours of continuing education credits.
Overall, since the field of computer forensics is continually changing, the tools, certifications, and licensing processes likely will evolve in the coming years as well. Prospective computer forensics experts should be sure to check with prospective employers, computer forensics colleges program coordinators, and professionals in the field to keep abreast of the most desirable competencies and credentials.
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).