Being a digital forensic investigator doesn’t require you to be an eccentric cybersecurity genius. You don’t need to be a programmer or a hacker. It would be best if you were willing to study, learn and put in the hours. Many, many hours, possibly in an overheated office due to the multitude of computers and devices working at the same time as you are.
Computer forensic analysts are expected to grow and reach new heights. According to Market Watch, the global digital forensic market is going to grow at a CAGR of 12,6% by 2024.
One of the reasons for this growth of digital forensics is due to changes in traditional crime lab infrastructure. In addition, large companies are exploring and adopting these tools as they become a more significant part of the corporate world online.
What is Digital Forensics?
A relatively new field, digital forensics is the answer to the progress of technology and the crime determined by this progress. Digital crime is correlated with the latest developments in technology, making way for a new discipline to solve its puzzles and catch criminals that hide behind digital devices. In other words, the role of a computer forensics investigator is to find and recover information from computers and other digital storage devices.
Digital forensics is a branch of forensic science that focuses on identifying, preserving, recovering, analyzing, and presenting facts found on digital devices, like:
- memory cards
- external hard drives
In other words, any device that stores data can be subject to digital forensic investigations.
Considering the impressive progress technology has made in the last decade and the proliferation of digital devices, digital forensics now plays an important part in many investigations and legal cases.
Computer forensics analysts work with law enforcement agencies, like the local police force, the FBI, and other similar entities to uncover and present the data contained in various digital devices. Moreover, computer forensics analysts can also work with private firms, like accounting and law firms, banks, and software development companies. In other words, any entity that uses a computer system may require a computer forensics investigator.
What is the job of a computer forensics investigator?
Computers are a modern tool for committing crimes. Essentially, the job of a computer forensics investigator is to solve cybercrimes. Whether working for the government or a private corporation, computer forensics analysts have to be skillful and talented enough to retrieve evidence, recover data from various digital devices, and use them to unmask cybercriminals. Still, the field of forensics is one step ahead of digital criminals due to the elaborate and precise work of computer forensics analysts.
A computer forensics specialist can examine everything from a personal computer to a complex server of a mammoth corporation. They have been known for finding evidence of digital crimes, even on devices like MP3 players, PDAs, digital cameras, and video game consoles. If the device is electronic and stores data, it’s a platform to work on for the computer forensics specialist.
It’s important to mention that a computer forensic analyst’s job doesn’t involve only tracking and finding the evidence. A big part of their job is to recover deleted files and passwords and check for security breaches. They also need to extract it carefully, preserve it, and present it admissible in a court of law. Once they’ve discovered the evidence, they also need to know how to collect it properly and contain it to secure its admissibility in court and explain it to lawyers, judges, and juries.
As an information security officer, a computer forensics analyst can also be hired to test the security of a private corporation’s information systems. This way, computer forensics analysts can determine how computers were broken into, how to recover the files, and set a plan to protect the corporation’s computers from hacking. Their field of expertise can be extended to networking and encryption too.
In other words, digital forensic investigators are the ones who provide the much-needed information to solve a federal criminal case but also the digital evidence to unmask a person who is stealing intellectual property.
How does a digital forensic investigator do their job?
With a lot of patience, calm, and attention! This is a job for those who have an acute sense of justice and a passion for making a change. A computer forensics investigator needs to be responsible and ready for what the job might throw its way. Unfortunately, many of the cases they have to deal with are related to child pornography, torture, rape, and murder, so they have to learn how to cope with all this darkness and focus on providing protection and security. They can do this when they analyze digital devices and evidence and collaborate with police officers and detectives that work in the criminal justice department.
Just like no day is the same for a criminal investigator, a forensic examiner always has a new challenge ahead of them. They might be working on a high-profile case, dealing with a data breach, solving hacking incidents and tracing sources of computer attacks, or using their skills to microfocus and recover lost or stolen data from storage devices. Regardless of the job they have to do for the day, the common denominator is always to make sure to preserve and not compromise the data they’re gathering. Moreover, to make sure the information is admissible in a court of law, they need to respect a chain of custody.
Digital forensics analysts need to have the necessary technical knowledge and rely on their instinct and passion for solving puzzles. Their job is usually not as easy as connecting a special software to retrieve information from a hard disk or cell phone. They need to follow the crumbles and piece together the puzzle by choosing the active component from the non-functioning ones.
Forensics analysts spend some of their time studying documentation, writing reports, or examining other examiners’ reports. Depending on their cases, they can also be called to testify in court, as this is often part of a complete forensic analysis. As you can see, this is a complex job that requires more than technological skills. It’s demanding and tiring and, at times, quite challenging. Not many manage to stay in this business for more than two years, primarily because of the job’s toll on their state of mind and emotions. Dealing with the world’s depravity is more complicated than any technological challenge.
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The applications for digital forensics investigators
Even though digital forensic experts are not super-humans with access to alien technology to solve crimes in 30 seconds, they can make a big difference.
Digital forensics is used to recover digital evidence from various devices to solve crimes.
Companies can also use it to prove violations of corporate policy.
Digital forensics aims to back or disprove various assumptions. For example, if an employee stole valuable data from a corporation, digital forensics can follow the crumbs left behind by their actions and provide evidence to prove the crime.
What about if you accidentally deleted an important file from your computer?
You call a digital forensic expert.
Digital forensic experts reconstruct and analyze digital information. Their skills are usually used to solve incidents of hacking computer attacks but also to recover lost or stolen data.
The experts can recover data from damaged or erased hard drives and trace hacks. They can also conduct internal and external investigations and work closely with private investigators and police officers.
All digital forensic investigations start with identifying where data is stored – servers, computers, flash drives, external hard disks, etc. It’s very important to understand and evaluate the environment where the violation has been committed so that they can identify the potential storage devices.
Preserving the evidence is vital for the investigation. Only a piece of unaltered evidence can be admissible in court, so digital forensic experts need to do anything to keep the “artifact” in its original state.
A thorough and complete chain-of-custody paperwork and documenting is often beneficial to preserve the evidence. There’s also the possibility to create a copy of the data found on the storage device and perform an analysis on that copy while preserving the integrity of the evidence.
The recovery process includes recovering deleted data and files from digital devices. From intentionally deleted files and password-protected files to damaged or corrupted files, digital forensic experts can bring them back to life and analyze them.
Now that all evidence has been traced and gathered, it’s time for digital forensic experts to analyze it.
They use various programs and applications to analyze common artifact locations, like browser history, logs, memory, scripts, and manual analysis.
Since any action performed on a computer can create up to five artifacts in various locations, digital forensic experts know precisely where to look for evidence.
Once the digital forensic investigation is complete, the experts need to write investigative reports. They present case reports that include all the documentation and artifacts gathered during the investigation to contribute to the investigation and help the persons instrumenting the case reach a definitive conclusion.
How to become a digital forensic investigator?
If you want to become a digital forensics specialist, you’ll need to have a vast knowledge of computers – hardware and software. A college education is usually required and recommended, especially if you can get a major in fields like Computer Criminology. Various community colleges have a two-year associate degree in computer forensics, so this might be exactly what you need to launch your career as a forensic computer examiner.
The next step should be a bachelor’s degree, although this isn’t a must to follow this career. Nevertheless, it would prove helpful, especially if the degree is in computer science. Now it’s time to get an entry-level position in the field and continue your education with professional certification. You’ll find various institutions that provide certifications. You can become certified as a GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA), Certified Computer Examiner, Global Certified Forensic Analyst, or Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP). Any certificate that attests to your skills as a computer forensics specialist will help you get the job (and salary) of your dreams. Patience and the willingness to work long hours are the foundation of a career in computer forensics, as are strong analytical and investigative skills. There are states where computer forensics investigators need to be licensed private investigators to work in this field. Moreover, more and more computer forensics investigators are seeking professional certification for a chance to advance their careers, such as the Certified Ethical Hacker program or the certifications provided by the International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners (ISFCE) and the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS).
Digital forensics gives the digital facts, but the police and investigators solve the puzzles. However, it’s not the digital forensic expert’ss job to reach the conclusion of the case or to worry if the case will be presented in front of a court of law. Their job ends once the investigative report is done!
This post has been updated to reflect changes in technology and the industry on March 16, 2022. It was originally published on June 19th, 2019