By Cooper Nelson
Many people are familiar with the field of forensics, which involves collecting physical evidence from a crime scene and analyzing for clues about what happened. Digital forensics, another investigative specialty, is lesser known — wherein the “crime scenes” are computerized devices.
Computers, smartphones and embedded systems contain information about users’ location, communications, web searches and application usage. This data can often serve as evidence in cases involving physical crimes and unlawful activity in the digital realm.
For example, a digital forensic expert can extract GPS data from a suspect’s smartphone to see their location at a specific time. They might also look at the files and code on a hacker’s computer to find evidence of security breaches or stolen data.
Because of the universal use of computerized devices, digital forensics experts are essential for investigations across law enforcement agencies. Here is an in-depth look at this growing field.
Cybercrime is extremely common. In 2021, the FBI received 847,376 cybercrime complaints, and potential losses from these events neared $7 billion.
The physical evidence of these crimes can be found on computers, hard drives and mobile devices. But it’s not enough to simply hold the devices in custody. Agencies need digital forensics investigators to extract data from these items to build a case. In many instances, the incriminating data is on cloud servers that must be accessed remotely.
Digital evidence can be difficult to handle because it can be altered or erased remotely. Digital detectives need to establish the chain of custody, which is necessary for keeping the information admissible in court.
Forensics investigators can use the data on digital devices to find out when a crime occurred, what methods were used, and who was involved. The information can lead to arrests and serve as evidence in court. Some forensics experts are even witnesses for criminal prosecutors during court cases.
Cyber investigations are also important for prevention. Digital forensics experts find out about new methods hackers use while collecting evidence. They can share these techniques with cybersecurity specialists, who can develop ways to protect against these new techniques.
Digital forensic investigators need to use a methodical approach in their work. Although the techniques digital investigators use can be similar to those of detectives at physical crime scenes, the tools are quite different.
Digital forensics investigations occur in a series of very distinct steps.
With cybercrimes, the investigation usually starts on the victim’s computer or network, where forensics experts can learn the source and methods of the attack.
Hackers often display a pattern of activity when carrying out an attack. These digital footprints can serve as evidence or lead investigators to incriminating files, devices or software.
The terms computer forensics and digital forensics are often used interchangeably. Both fields are closely related because they deal with computerized devices. However, computer forensics typically deals with desktops, laptops, servers and hard drives.
Because of the prevalence of these systems, digital forensics experts are often part of investigations for both physical crimes and cybercrimes.
Digital forensics investigators are computer scientists who use their skills to find and collect evidence from computers, mobile phones, tablets and other digital devices. They coordinate with attorneys and other investigators to collect evidence and locate those responsible for criminal activities.
In some cases, digital forensics experts play a specific role, such as extracting information from a suspect’s mobile phone. However, they may be the primary investigators in cases involving cybercrime.
Digital forensics investigators use specific techniques to carry out their inquiries. Here are some additional investigative methods cyber investigators use:
There are several ways to start a career as a digital forensics investigator. All career paths begin with obtaining the necessary technical knowledge and learning investigative techniques and requirements.
Most employers expect digital forensics investigators to have a bachelor’s degree. An information technology (IT) or cybersecurity degree will teach you skills to work in this field, with a computer science degree serving as a possible alternative.
Digital forensics investigators need a wider range of skills than other tech professionals.
A combination of experience and education is necessary to succeed as a digital forensics investigator.
Whether you’re seeking to gain a basic understanding of cybersecurity and other IT skills or you’re a working professional looking to expand your knowledge, University of Phoenix offers online course collections and bachelor’s degrees.
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