Experts often cite cybercrime as one of the greatest threats to companies worldwide. One recent survey conducted by DHL lists cyber incidents (including cybercrime) as one of the top business threats in 2019. On a global scale, cybercrimes have cost organizations over $1 trillion dollars, and the threat is only growing.
Large corporations such as Facebook, First American Corporation, Equifax, and Yahoo, with their vast troves of consumer data, are frequent targets of cybercriminals. As such, most have invested heavily in their cybersecurity initiatives. It is important to note, however, that cybercrime plagues businesses of all sizes and levels of maturity. According to the 2019 Data Breach Investigations Report compiled by Verizon, 43 percent of all data breaches—almost half—involved small business victims.
With data breaches occurring more and more frequently, they have in many ways become a routine occurrence, earning no more than a collective shrug from the public at large. But beyond simply being an invasion of privacy, data breaches can put an individual’s personal, financial, and even medical information at risk. In addition to the direct costs associated with resolving the security breach, companies involved in such data breaches can also incur significant legal expenses. These costs, paired with a loss of trust from their consumers, mean that a single breach can significantly damage a company’s bottom line.
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It is for these reasons that it is critical for companies of all sizes to hire skilled professionals to protect against these threats—a fact that has given rise to an increased demand for computer forensics investigators.
If you’re considering a career in computer forensics investigation, now is an opportune time to enter the field. Below are some tips that you can use to jumpstart your career in cybersecurity.
What Does a Computer Forensics Investigator Do?
The field of cyber forensics focuses on the collection, handling, and analysis of evidence in all its digital forms.
“Computer forensics is an area of cybersecurity that is tightly coupled with its application domains,” says Guevara Noubir, professor and director of the Cybersecurity and Information Assurance program at Northeastern University. “For instance, it is used in law enforcement to investigate crimes, and by companies to investigate issues surrounding intellectual property or the inappropriate use of computing and network infrastructure.”
Below, we explore some of the daily functions and responsibilities that computer forensics investigators can expect to perform as a part of their job.
1. Cybercrime Prevention and Response
One of the core functions of a computer forensics investigator is to fight cybercrime. This work can be broken into three distinct phases.
- Prevention: When employed by an organization or regulator, a large portion of the work conducted by computer forensics investigators is focused on preventing cybercrime. This involves active monitoring and evaluation of servers and networks. If at any point a vulnerability is identified, the investigator will work with others to develop a plan of action to patch the system and remove the vulnerability.
- Containment and resolution: According to IBM’s 2019 Cost of a Data Breach Report, it takes an average of 279 days to identify and contain a cybersecurity breach and costs millions of dollars in damages. When a data breach has been detected, it is the responsibility of the computer forensics investigator to determine how the breach occurred and ensure its speedy resolution in order to limit these expenses and restore integrity to the network.
- Reflection and analysis: Once a data breach has been resolved, the computer forensics investigator will conduct an analysis of the event in order to fully understand the methods that nefarious actors used to conduct the attack. This information can then be used by the company to help prevent future attacks.
To conduct this work, computer forensic investigators may be employed as members of law enforcement, as members of a company’s internal cybersecurity team, or as an independent third-party contractor who is brought in to address a specific issue.
2. Legal Consultation
It’s not uncommon for computer forensics investigators to aid in legal proceedings for a criminal case, either as members of law enforcement or independent investigators. At its most basic level, this might involve gathering digital evidence to aid in a criminal conviction—for example, by analyzing a digital trail or by reconstructing damaged hardware. It might also involve testifying in court as an expert witness.
“There are stringent requirements on the recovery and investigation of authentic digital evidence to be admissible in court,” Noubir says. “For instance, digital evidence has to be authentic and reliably obtained, and its integrity preserved to make it admissible as evidence in court.”
For these reasons, in order to be successful in their role, computer forensics investigators must hold both a firm understanding of technical as well as soft skills. Whether in the courtroom or in the office, the ability to gather, process, and explain information related to their job—often to individuals who do not possess a technical background—is critical to the job.
3. Keeping Up-To-Date With Digital Trends
Technology is constantly adapting and changing. Blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), and wearable devices are just a handful of examples. While this evolution brings with it many opportunities for businesses and organizations to adjust their ways of doing business, it also brings with it increased opportunity for risk.
For this reason, computer forensics investigators must ensure that they are constantly expanding their knowledge and understanding of cybersecurity protocols and strategies, particularly as applied to their organization and industry. While this is not a specific daily requirement of computer forensics work, failure to stay on top of current trends and developments will make it incredibly difficult for a computer forensics investigator to be effective in their role.
Some ways for computer forensics investigators to stay up-to-date include:
- Reading industry journals, websites, and other publications that highlight recent developments in the field.
- Joining professional associations that offer members valuable resources, such as access to cutting edge research.
- Attending industry networking events, which offer opportunities to connect with others working in the field in order to exchange ideas.
- Pursuing an advanced degree, such as a master’s degree in cybersecurity, focused on these burgeoning areas.
Salary and Job Outlook
The median yearly salary for computer forensics investigators (also called digital forensics investigators) is roughly $85,660. However, salaries can fluctuate from $61,657 to upwards of $112,000, depending on a number of factors including your location, level of education, and experience. Generally speaking, individuals who have earned an advanced degree in a cybersecurity-related field will be able to command a higher salary.
Other related job titles and their average annual salaries include:
- Cybersecurity Analyst: $53,000-$117,000
- Cybersecurity Engineer: $67,000-$138,000
- IT Security Specialist: $48,000-$110,000
With more than 3.5 million unfilled cybersecurity jobs estimated globally in 2021, cybersecurity professionals are expected to continue to enjoy high demand well into the next decade.
In addition to high average salaries and available jobs, each of these roles offers professionals ample opportunity for advancement. It is not uncommon for computer forensics investigators to eventually pivot their careers in the direction of leadership by becoming a senior investigator or director, or by starting their own consulting agency or private practice. In the case of more senior-level positions, advanced degrees are more commonly required.
How to Become a Computer Forensics Investigator
“To pursue a career in this area, one would need a combination of technical knowledge of computer systems and networks, but also legal and domain expertise,” Noubir says.
He adds, “Armed with a solid technical foundation, a successful computer forensics investigator would acquire domain expertise through academic learning about laws and best practices, and contextualized through practical training.”
Below, we examine the steps that you should take if you are considering becoming a computer forensics investigator.
1. Fulfill Educational Requirements
Each company or organization will have their own requirements in terms of the level of education they expect from job applicants.
While it may be possible to break into the field with as little as a high school diploma and adequate experience, a recent survey conducted by Burning Glass Labor Insights indicates that approximately 84 percent of cybersecurity postings require applicants to hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a related field. Approximately 23 percent of all cybersecurity openings require that applicants hold a master’s degree or higher.
If you are considering earning a graduate degree in order to fulfill the educational requirements that employers are looking for, it is important to note that a number of different degrees may be appropriate.
A master’s degree in cybersecurity is a popular choice, as it allows students to build a broad but firm understanding of the key issues they can expect to encounter in the field. Other options might include earning an MS in information systems, computer science, or criminal justice, depending on your specific interests and areas of focus.
2. Build Your Skills
Achieving the proper level of education is an important part of becoming a computer forensics investigator. Another important step is developing the skills and gaining the experience that employers want to see in applicants. According to Burning Glass Labor Insights, 83 percent of cybersecurity job postings (including those for computer forensics investigators) require that applicants have at least three years of experience in the field, with an average of more than five years preferred.
Some of the key skills that a computer forensics investigator must learn and maintain include:
- Technical skills: In order to be effective in their role, computer forensics investigators must develop solid technical skills. This includes a firm understanding of information security; network setup; database management, coding, and scripting; auditing; network protocol; and systems administration.
- Soft skills: As mentioned above, computer forensics investigators must often communicate with a range of audiences, including many individuals who are not IT professionals. As such, soft skills such as the ability to communicate effectively are critical to the job.
- Legal understanding: As it is not uncommon for computer forensics investigators to aid in criminal investigations and cases, developing a firm understanding of legal proceedings and protocols can be particularly helpful.
One of the best ways to build these skills is to spend time working in the field gaining direct experience. While effective, it can take years to develop expertise in this manner.
Alternatively, earning an advanced degree with a focus on hands-on learning through co-ops or internships can be an effective way of building these skills and gaining experience at the same time.
3. Advance Your Knowledge
According to Burning Glass Labor Insights, more than one-third (35 percent) of all cybersecurity positions require that applicants hold specific industry certifications in order to be eligible for a position. There are several certifications you can consider earning to help you become a computer forensics investigator. Some agencies or companies even require investigators to hold certain certifications in order to join the team.
Certifications come in two main varieties: Vendor-neutral and vendor-specific certifications. Vendor-neutral programs certify an investigator in the best practices in a particular field of development, while vendor-specific programs certify a professional’s competency with a specific software platform.
The International Society of Forensic Computer Examiners and the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists offer a vendor-neutral Certified Forensic Computer Examiner certification, which consists of two stages. Other examples include the Global Information Assurance Certification (GIAC), the EnCE certification, and the AccessData Certification.
It is important to note, though, that these certifications do not replace the need for formal education. In most cases, these certifications are viewed by a supplement to undergraduate and graduate education.
4. Developing Yourself Professionally
“In the arms race between attackers and defenders, the adversary only needs to find one vulnerability to exploit or attack a system,” Noubir says. “Therefore, success in a cybersecurity career requires: a solid technical foundation to make sound judgements, a passion and curiosity to remain at the top of the game, and the rigor to be bulletproof—or at least not fall prey to simple attacks, as we unfortunately continue to witness on an almost daily basis.”
Those who want to become computer forensics investigators must possess a willingness to continuously learn and develop. Company-sponsored training is a valuable asset that professionals should consider to ensure their skills are up-to-date. Similarly, taking advantage of networking opportunities allows you to collaborate with others in order to learn from their successes (and mistakes) and sharpen your skills.
Pursuing an advanced degree in cybersecurity can be an effective means of building such a network, by connecting you with like-minded professionals such as classmates and industry-sourced faculty and professors who have spent time working in the field.
Chart Your Path To Becoming A Computer Forensics Investigator
The need for computer forensics investigators is at an all-time high, and professionals with the appropriate skills, experience, and connections are primed to fill that need. Earning an advanced degree such as a master’s degree in cybersecurity, information technology, or computer science can help interested professionals learn these skills, gain the required experience, and build the connections and network that they will leverage throughout their career.
At Northeastern, the MS in Cybersecurity program is specifically designed to explore key issues in information security and how technology and people can work together to resolve them. Students build and strengthen technical skills and develop their understanding of the context in which cybersecurity technology is applied, all while building lasting relationships with professors and classmates that will carry throughout their careers. Additionally, a capstone project and numerous co-op opportunities give students the ability to earn the real-world experience that employers expect.
Are you ready to get started in an exciting career in this growing field? Download our Guide to Advancing Your Cybersecurity Career below.