The arrival of the Internet in the 21st century introduced a new dimension for criminal activity to flourish: the World Wide Web. These days every industry – retail, government, medical, and technology, collects, stores, and shares electronic consumer data, often compromised by hackers.
In September 2021, the Identity Theft Research Center reported that the number of data breaches surpassed the record previously set in 2020 by 17 percent, primarily by phishing and ransomware scams. To meet the growing needs of internet-based crime-fighting, careers in computer forensics are in high demand.
Since the expansion of electronic records and cybercrime are only predicted to increase, it makes sense that companies want to hire information security professionals to protect their reputations and avoid liability. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) shows that information security analyst careers are predicted to grow by 33 percent in the coming decade, much faster than the national average for all occupations at 8 percent (BLS 2021). This means approximately 16,300 new positions each year between 2020 and 2030, with a current median salary of $103,590 (BLS 2021).
Data breaches happen to small businesses and big-name companies like Facebook and T-Mobile. Digital crimes include fraud, computer terrorism, data theft, denial of service attacks, and technological espionage, which leave behind electronic trails. Computer forensics experts are tasked with backtracking this information and bringing justice to those whose online privacy has been illegally compromised.
Because of the absence of federal data protection laws in the United States, computer forensic specialists may be needed to create digital security policies at the national level in the coming years. As of 2021, there are no federal standards in place to hold businesses and organizations accountable for protecting people’s personal information. In May 2018, the European Union introduced data protection regulations by rolling out the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is a solid start for a global standard, but millions of Americans remain at the whim of companies’ unregulated data security policies and hackers.
So how does one become a digital forensics professional? Many aspiring computer crimes experts begin by enrolling in a two- to four-year computer forensics program. These programs offer investigative techniques, computer ethics, white-collar crime, mobile forensics, and laws of searching & seizing digital property. After graduation, a person may be eligible for 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 flexible distance-based education.
Keep in mind that applicants should verify that there are no enrollment restrictions based on a person’s state of residence. For example, 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 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 complement 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, competencies (e.g., A+, Net+), or significant experience (e.g., computer programming).
Penn Foster Career School provides an entry-level online forensic examiner certificate program. Using real case studies to illustrate the profession’s competencies, 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 teaches students how to set up their 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 interested in targeted graduate coursework but cannot commit to a complete master’s program. Courses include digital forensics, file system analysis, and advanced incident response. In addition, although having a CompTIA A+ certification is a prerequisite to entry, URI offers a free, optional online course the summer before the student matriculates into the program.
Finally, 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.
There are several online degree programs available for those looking to go the distance in the realm of digital forensics.
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 that 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 a bachelor’s degree, sufficient computer programming training, and even some professional experience (e.g., criminology).
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.
St. Petersburg College also offers an online computer-related crime investigation certificate, which can be applied towards the associate degree program, and an online bachelor’s degree in public safety administration for students with professional experience in public safety.
Champlain University offers a 100 percent online bachelor’s of science (BS) degree in computer forensics & digital investigations. The 120-credit 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 can pursue a certification in their specialization of choice. Furthermore, the school is 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 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. In addition, this program prepares graduates for many industry certifications profiled in the certification section below.
The University of Central Florida (UCF) provides an online, interdisciplinary MS in digital forensics. This 30-credit program—developed in collaboration with the National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS)—involves 30 credits 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 those outlined above in the online certificates and degrees.
For students fortunate enough to live near a college campus, here is a selection of programs offering on-campus certificates in digital forensics:
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, include rigorous data mining, network forensics, and business data communication instruction. 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 an IT-cybersecurity specialist associate degree through its Truax campus. The 63-credit program is offered online and in-person and teaches students about the acquisition, analysis, and legal uses of digital evidence, mainly applied to civil, criminal, and internal investigations. It may be an ideal option for those working in law enforcement or IT security. In addition, 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.
The Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham offers two graduate certificate programs in computer forensics. One is designed for graduate students, and the other is tailored for non-degree-seeking graduate students. The certificate programs include 21 credits and cover core areas of data retrieval, preservation, and analysis of digital evidence. In addition, graduates from this program are trained to use tools to identify and respond to attacks on local- and wide-area networks and testify as expert witnesses in criminal investigations.
Finally, for students seeking a more traditional degree program with on-campus, face-to-face interactions, there are some quality options available.
Missouri Southern State University (MSSU) offers a unique bachelor of science (BS) in computer information science and criminal justice administration, emphasizing 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 and criminal justice administration, and this program is ideal for those who want to work in computer forensics for corporations or the government.
Sam Houston State University (SHSU)—based in Huntsville, Texas—hosts a 30- to 36-credit master of science (MS) in digital forensics online and on campus. 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 can 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 and a master of science (MS) and PhD in computer and information technology with a specialization in cyber forensics. The bachelor’s program is accredited by the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET). Students put their theoretical knowledge to practice through industry partnerships.
In addition to the MS and PhD degree requirements 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 interested in digital forensics.
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. Accreditation is granted to specialized academic programs and entire institutions.
The gold standard in program accreditation is the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Council (FEPAC) for many forensics programs. This organization, however, focuses mainly on 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.
The Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM) accredits more than 350 programs in health informatics and health information management. The field of health informatics covers digital information protection for health, information science and technology, and social and behavioral science. CAHIIM accredits associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s degree programs that meet its high standards for educational quality.
Several institutional accreditation bodies evaluate schools as a whole. The US Department of Education approves the following regional accrediting bodies:
Finally, there is a wide range of certifications available to digital forensics professionals. Here are a few of the most common and desirable 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 credits (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 cost to take the CCE exam is $485, and test-takers must score 70 percent or higher to pass.
The International Council of E-Commerce Consultants (EC-Council)—accredited by the National Security Agency (NSA) and Department of Defense (DoD), among others—offers certifications in the field, including computer hacking forensic investigator (CHFI) credential. Candidates must pass the 150-question exam spread out over four hours.
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. CFCE certifications are valid for three years and require a proficiency exercise to be completed online and 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. Therefore, 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).