The proliferation and adoption of digital information technologies (IT) and networked computer power in business, in government, and in almost every other facet of our culture has created not only new opportunities and new efficiencies, but also new vulnerabilities. As money, commerce, and data have migrated to the digital sphere, so have criminals and other bad actors. Protecting the integrity of vital IT infrastructures and the data they contain is now a top priority. The discipline of digital forensics, which involves the scientific application of various techniques and procedures to investigate cyber incidents and attacks, is integral to a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy. As demand for specialists in this field has grown, colleges and universities have responded with master’s degree programs that deliver skills and training in digital forensics.
Digital forensics is essentially the application of traditional forensic science methodologies to computers and other components of the digital world. It is the detective work of cybersecurity, and it encompasses the technical knowledge required to navigate complex computer systems, identify points of unauthorized network access, locate programming anomalies, and collect data relevant to cyber incidents. Digital forensics investigators are called in when malicious activity is suspected. Working within the law and sometimes in concert with law enforcement agencies, they use specialized tools and techniques to locate and collect evidence of hacks, attacks, and other IT breaches. They must then analyze, preserve, and organize this evidence into a case or incident report that clearly identifies the nature of the event/incursion, as well as the potential causes and probable sources of any anomalous or unauthorized activity.
Digital forensics is one of the more clearly delineated specializations in cybersecurity. For this reason, online master’s degree programs in digital forensics are often easier to distinguish from other master’s programs in related IT specializations. While most master’s-level training in cybersecurity (including information assurance and information governance) includes some basic training in computer forensics, the full range of skills and knowledge necessary to work in the field are best addressed in dedicated online master’s degree programs that target digital forensics. The following are examples of digital forensics master’s degrees:
The Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission (FEPAC) reviews and sets standards for undergraduate and master’s degrees in forensic science. This includes accrediting a subset of digital forensics degrees that are offered as an emphasis or a concentration within a forensic science program. Beyond that, there are currently no set standards for what constitutes master’s-level training in digital forensics. Forensic science is primarily concerned with the collection and analysis of physical evidence. In contrast, digital forensics deals principally with investigations in the complex operational realm of IT systems, and the unique technical challenges associated with computer programming, cryptographic algorithms, Internet protocols, and network architecture. While there are criminal justice and forensic science departments that have developed curricula in digital forensics, master’s degrees in digital forensics are most commonly housed in computer science and engineering departments, or in programs devoted to IT security, information assurance, and/or cybersecurity.
Through independent research of universities offering digital forensics degrees, OnlineEducation.com established criteria for distinguishing these programs from other degrees in cybersecurity. Our goal is to help prospective students identify relevant online master’s degree training in the specific area of digital forensics, regardless of program names and/or departmental affiliations. The online Master’s in Digital Forensics programs featured on this page were evaluated based on the following requirements:
While OnlineEducation.com does its best to ensure online degree listings are accurate and up-to-date, programs can and do change. Students considering master’s degrees in digital forensics should visit prospective schools’ websites for the most up-to-date information.
Readers can also visit OnlineEducation.com’s program pages on Information Assurance and Cybersecurity, and Digital Forensics to learn more about other online master’s degree programs in cybersecurity.
Readers can also visit OnlineEducation.com’s program pages on Information Assurance and Cybersecurity, and Information Security Policy and Governance to learn more about other online master’s degree program in cybersecurity.
Training in digital forensics can be broken down into three foundational areas of competency. The first covers the technology itself, from the software, coding, and operating systems that are in common use (i.e., Apple’s OS X and Microsoft Windows), to the various servers, routers, data storage systems, and other network hardware and architecture that runs critical software and applications. Then there are the techniques digital forensic specialists employ to audit, assess, and test the function and compliance of information security protocols, including encryption algorithms, firewalls, and other data protection tools, all of which are factors used to detect and investigate unauthorized network activity, system breaches, and other cyber incidents.
Finally, digital forensics specialists must know how to recover and preserve relevant computer evidence and other digital files in compliance with the law, and then be prepared to present that evidence as a means of establishing the existence of a crime or attack. Knowledge of relevant case law, criminal justice proceedings, and policies regarding the governance of digital information and databases can also be part of online master’s program in digital forensics.
The following courses are sampled from actual online master’s degree programs in digital forensics:
|Foundations of Data Protection||An essential introduction to various methods of data storage, processing, and protection, including cryptology and encryption, certificate authorities, authentication protocols, and privacy protections. Data confidentiality, data integrity, and data access are foundational components of this course.
|The Practice of Digital Investigations||The principles of forensic science and evidence management in a digital environment, specifically in the context of internal corporate investigations, policy auditing, criminal proceedings, and coordinated anti-terrorism efforts.|
|Operating System Analysis||The architecture and functionality of the operating systems that run PCs, laptops, smartphones, and other devices is explored in relation to how information can be accessed, recovered, and stored in a digital forensics investigation, and what tools are available to investigators who are examining a computer network for anomalies.|
|Compliance and Legal Issues||Industry standards for data security and information assurance, as well as federal and state statutes regarding cyber incident response and investigations are covered in depth.|
|Emerging Cyber Threats||An historical overview of cyber attacks and threats leading up to the present day, including malicious software, social engineering, virus detection, and advanced persistent threats.|
|Incident Response and Network Forensics||An in-depth examination of how cyber incident detection and response is carried out across a digital network, with special attention to the technical details of TCP/lP structure and higher-level protocols, and the operational function of routers, switches and firewalls.|
Admissions requirements for online master’s degree programs in digital forensics vary from institution to institution. In general, applicants are required to hold a bachelor’s degree from a regionally accredited four-year college or university, and some programs specify a minimum grade point average. While an undergraduate degree in computer science or information technology is often not a requirement, most schools suggest that applicants have a background in computers science and digital technology, and some may show preference to those who have some prior experience in an IT field. In addition, schools may ask for up to three recommendations, and a personal statement in the form of an essay that details the applicant’s interest in the field of digital forensics. In some cases, schools may request or require the submission of scores from the GRE test.
Convenience and flexibility are two of the built-in advantages of earning a master’s degree online. However, digital forensics programs may differ from one another in terms of when and how online courses are offered, and what is expected or required in terms of course loads and time to graduation. These can be important considerations for students who have to balance school commitments with career, military, and/or family obligations.
Course load and length of study: Depending on the way credits are dispersed among individual courses, a typical online master’s degree program in digital forensics or cyber investigations requires between 30-36 credits/credit-hours, which equates to 10-12 actual courses. Somewhere between four and eight of those courses will be core requirements in the area of digital forensics, cybersecurity, and information assurance, and it may be necessary to take some or all of them in a particular sequence. The rest of the credits can typically be completed through elective coursework in areas like wireless device forensics, criminal justice data research methods, or forensic testimony in a court of law, and there may be a capstone project requirement as well. These degrees can be completed online within three to four semester, or 12-15 months by full-time students, depending on the program. Part-time programs are also available which can be completed in 20-36 months depending on how many courses a student takes per semester/quarter.
The following table presents real enrollment options and credit requirements from three schools offering online digital forensics master’s degree programs.
Avg. Courses Per Semester
Time to Completion*
|2 courses/8-week term 1 course/8-week term||12 months
|2 courses/6-week term 1 courses/6-week term||12 months
|Self-paced||1-2 courses||12-24 months|
|* Schools’ estimated time-to-completion for students who maintain suggested course load throughout their programs.|
Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Instruction: Depending upon a student’s scheduling needs, this can be a crucial factor in choosing an online master’s degree program in digital forensics. Asynchronous instruction is designed for optimum convenience: students access and view pre-recorded lectures, communicate with teachers and classmates online, and remotely download and submit assignments as necessary. Synchronous instruction is more structured and more closely resembles traditional campus-based programs: it involves being present online to participate in live lectures and discussions groups at designated times. These real-time classes, which offer the potential for more spontaneous interactions, may be scheduled in the evenings or at other times that are likely to be convenient for working students.
Required Internships or Campus Visits: Typically, online master’s degrees in digital forensics do not require internships. Instead, they may include a capstone project, which can involve some kind of work in the field. This varies from program to program. The same is true for campus visits, sometimes called immersion training. Not all schools require a campus visit, but some may require students to participate in one or two immersion sessions in order to complete an online master’s in digital forensics. These are still considered online programs, but it is important to factor in the time and cost it may take to fulfill any campus visit requirements.
OnlineEducation.com classifies online digital forensics programs as those that require no more than two campus visits per year. Programs that require more than two visits per year are classified as hybrid programs and are not included on the site.