There are several paths one can take to become a digital forensics specialist. A master’s degree in digital forensics is one way to acquire the skills and training required to work in the field. It is also possible for those who have experience working in related cybersecurity and IT fields to transition to a career in digital forensics though on-the-job training and professional certification programs. In general, employers prefer applicants with some formal training in computer science and programming and/or several years of experience working with IT systems and networks.
Digital forensics is a relatively new field of criminal investigation with a substantial footprint in the evolving world of cybersecurity. As digital infrastructures have expanded, so have the scope, intensity, and sophistication of computer- and Internet-based crimes. This has led to an acute demand for investigators with specialized computer skills, a deep knowledge of IT systems, and a clear understanding of state, federal, and international laws pertaining to computer crimes. These digital forensics specialists respond to IT system breaches and hacks; determine the source of unauthorized and potentially illegal network penetrations; and preserve and prepare evidence of illicit cyber activity for presentation. They may have roles in criminal and civil litigations, fraud investigations, and in other situations that involve unlawful access of information stored on digital networks.
Until recently digital forensics was commonly referred to as computer forensics. However, the emergence of mobile networked devices, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, and other cyber technologies has broadened the field far beyond computers. There may still be some employers who use the designation “computer forensics investigator,” or “computer forensics analyst,” but jobs in the field more typically have names like the following:
In the past, computer and digital forensics specialists typically have emerged from careers in IT security, or received on-the-job training in the military, the FBI, the Treasury Department, and other federal investigative agencies. While these career paths are still possible, it has become more common for digital forensics specialists to enroll in formal degree programs. This can begin with an undergraduate degree in computer science, IT systems, criminal justice, or a related field, which may be adequate for an entry-level position in IT security, information assurance, or computer crimes investigations. However, specialized training in digital forensics takes place at the graduate level, where there are master’s in digital forensics and master’s in cybersecurity degree programs.
Students in digital forensics master’s programs receive instruction in advanced computer programming, operating systems, and IT infrastructures. They learn about security protocols, encryption algorithms, firewalls, and other tools for defending computer networks and detecting breaches. They also receive instruction in the laws and procedures pertaining to recovering and preserving digital evidence, legal precedents relating to computer crimes, and the ethical practice of digital forensics. In addition to master’s in digital forensics programs, there are computer science and information technology programs that offer a specialization or concentration in digital forensics.
For career changers who already have a degree or professional experience in computer programming, IT administration, and/or cybersecurity, there are schools that offer academic certifications in digital forensics. There are also private companies like the SANS Institute, and non-profit organizations like the International Information System Security Certification Consortium, which provide instructional coursework in digital forensics and industry certifications for digital forensics professionals.
There are currently no state licensing requirements for digital forensics specialists. However, some states do require those working in digital forensics to be licensed as private investigators. This varies by state, but the general requirement for licensure as a private investigator includes passing a criminal background check and a licensing exam.
In lieu of state licensure, there are numerous professional and private vendor certifications available to digital forensics specialists. These credentials can be helpful for career advancement and as a means of establishing expertise in particular areas of digital forensics. However, they are not universally required. Professionals who have already begun working in digital forensics or a related area of cybersecurity often pursue these certifications with the assistance of their employer.
Some of the widely recognized certifications in digital forensics include the following: