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What is computer forensics?

At a glance

At times during an investigation, law enforcement and examiners might need to access and analyze data, media or other information stored on a computer. Investigators will often turn to experts in computer forensics — an investigative field of law and computer science in which researchers search for, find and preserve forensic evidence.

Sometimes known as computer forensic science, it often starts with data recovery. Investigators who need help securing digital evidence from a laptop, tablet, phone or other connected device may turn to these professionals for forensic support.

What is computer forensics used for?

Computer forensics is useful in a wide variety of applications and can be used for both criminal and civil cases.

For example, it may be used in the following circumstances:

  • Corporate espionage cases. Forensics experts can prove corporate espionage when locating traded documents containing secrets, formulas, recipes, work processes or business plans.
  • NDA disclosure cases. An accidental or intentional breach of a nondisclosure agreement can be proved if the information was disclosed to the public through a traceable piece of technology.
  • Traffic accident testimony. Vehicles collect digital evidence on when drivers accelerate and brake. This information can prove valuable in determining fault for a traffic violation.
  • Sexual harassment investigations. Messages traced to phones or email addresses can support or refute sexual assault claims.
  • Fraud investigations. Advance-fee schemes, Ponzi schemes and other fraudulent strategies often leave behind transaction records, which investigators can use to prove fraud.
  • Murder investigations. A killer’s search history is often used to prove intention during murder investigations.

In some cases, investigators spend more time examining the file’s data than they do its contents. For example, many images contain information about when, how and where a particular photo was taken. This digital forensics information is often valuable to investigators as supporting evidence during a trial.

Computer forensics vs. cybersecurity

Computer forensics and cybersecurity are two closely related fields. Experts in both of these fields can assist investigators during active investigations, helping to analyze cyber data and providing valuable evidence that helps determine a defendant’s guilt or innocence.

They focus on a similar goal: protecting digital assets. Cybersecurity and computer forensics methodologies can be used as effective strategies in virtually any field to ensure forensic data is used only for a particular purpose.

Both fields also include data recovery strategies to help recover forensic data that might have been lost during a security breach, device damage or another issue.

Though similar, these career fields are characterized by a few key differences. While cybersecurity focuses on the prevention of theft, fraud and other kinds of forensic data loss, computer forensics is primarily concerned with data that has already been misused.

Cybersecurity teams work diligently to prevent threats from materializing. For example, they might segment networks, integrate two-factor authentication and require regular password changes to minimize risks. However, sometimes bad actors access protected data without permission.

When data is misused, computer forensics experts go to work. Using a variety of different data access and recovery strategies, these professionals work to recover forensic data without further harming it. Their findings are useful as evidence in criminal or civil trials, in addition to the value that any recovered data provides.

Interested in information technology? Check out our complete guide on the blog!

Jobs in computer forensics

Careers in computer forensics are among the highest-paying computer science jobs in the market today. With the right combination of education and experience, you may be able to pursue a computer forensics career across a variety of industries.

Computer forensics jobs include:

Computer forensics investigator

Overview: Retrieves sensitive information from devices like computers and phones and helps to preserve evidence. Although the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t provide salary and related data for this particular profession, the work and salary range of a computer forensics investigator are similar to that of a forensic science technician.

University of Phoenix offers a Cybersecurity Digital Forensics Certificate, which equips you with the skills to plan, implement and monitor security measures. Click here to learn more.

Computer systems analyst

Overview: Analyzes an organization’s current computer network and determines more effective methods for security and device use.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree is typical, usually but not always in computer or information science.

National salary rangeComputer systems analysts earned between $56,510 and $152,060 in May 2020, according to BLS.

Job outlook: Jobs in this field are projected to grow 7% from 2020 to 2030, according to BLS.

Information security analyst

Overview: Proactively assesses and protects an organization’s software and hardware systems and works to mitigate threats that do arise.

Education requirements: A bachelor’s degree in computer science or related field is typical, and work experience is desirable.

National salary rangeInformation security analysts earned between $60,060 and $163,300 in May 2020, according to BLS.

Job outlook: The position is expected to grow 33% from 2020 to 2030, according to BLS.

The salary ranges are not specific to students or graduates of University of Phoenix. Actual outcomes vary based on multiple factors, including prior work experience, geographic location and other factors specific to the individual. University of Phoenix does not guarantee employment, salary level or career advancement. BLS data is geographically based. Information for a specific state/city can be researched on the BLS website.

In addition to the above career choices, you might find employment in a role that integrates computer forensics into your regular tasks. For example, security consultants regularly depend on computer forensics best practices when searching devices for data.

Alternatively, you might find employment as a forensic computer analyst, working alongside other analysts on larger investigative projects.

Skills for a career in computer forensics

Whether you’re at a physical crime scene or accessing forensics through files in the device of a person of interest, your skill set can help investigators close cases and deliver accurate verdicts.

You may need the following skills for a career in computer forensics:

  • Technical proficiency: As a computer forensics professional, you’ll need a deep knowledge of operating systems, hardware and software functionality, and security protocols when searching devices for evidence.
  • Investigative law: An understanding of investigative law is critical for helping you determine which types of evidence are permissible in court.
  • Interpersonal communication: The capacity to communicate with investigators, computer experts and fellow computer forensic analysts will be important for meeting project deadlines.
  • Programming: HTML, C++, Python and other coding languages are often useful when accessing data stored on secure hardware.
  • Cybersecurity: Despite the differences between cybersecurity and computer forensics, you’ll likely need to understand basic cybersecurity and IT terminology when accessing files and bypassing firewalls.
  • Data analysis: After accessing data files, you’ll need to determine which are most useful in assisting investigators.
  • Data sensitivity: You’ll need to be able to comfortably work with sensitive, sometimes disturbing, data.

Even if you don’t immediately possess all of the above skills, your education and relevant industry experience should establish a solid foundation for a computer forensics career.

Education and experience for a career in computer forensics

Before you can begin a career in computer forensics, you’ll need to complete your education.

Several different technology degrees could contribute to a successful computer forensics career. These include:

In addition to your education, you may also need to obtain one or more of the following certificates:

These brief certificate courses can complement your education and demonstrate your commitment and aptitude to a potential employer. From there, the field of computer forensics awaits both discovery and success.