How to Get Started in the Field of Digital Forensics

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When you think of different career paths in the field of cyber you might not always notice the field of digital forensics. However, if you have a passion for all things digital and keen attention to detail, this field could be the perfect place for you where a job is not to work, but something you enjoy. Many people might also explore this field as an option after retiring from a career in the military or law enforcement and want to start a “second life”. No matter where you come from, you will need some specific strengths and skill sets to be successful in the field.

What is digital forensics?

In the broader scope, digital forensics is the investigation of anything digital to prove or disprove an allegation. What it is when it comes to a career is more focused on different areas of investigation.

Each area seen above can be a specialty when it comes to digital forensics. If you find you have an interest and natural talent for mobile devices, you might want to work to get the skills to specialize in that area. If you find working through the minutia of the data as your passion, working in databases and having coding skills in Python could be the best fit. If you like everything, you will need to make sure you find an organization that requires you to do it all. Each individual area for investigation requires commitment and continuing education about those areas you are investigating. One of the hardest aspects of digital forensics is that it is a field that always is experiencing change.

What jobs are there in digital forensics?

Digital forensics as a component of cyber as a whole means that it is the investigative side of cyber. Typically, an investigation would involve anything from figuring out how Malware got into a system and its transfer vector to finding out what a past employee might have stolen and removed. No matter what the scenario, you investigate something that involves data. If you are a fan of a good mystery with difficult clues the digital forensics field is the perfect field for you.

Some common job titles might include:

  • Computer Forensics Investigator
  • Computer Forensics Technician
  • Information Security Analyst
  • Information Systems Security Analyst
  • Forensic Computer Analyst
  • Security Consultant
  • Computer forensics examiner
  • Security consultant
  • Computer crime investigator

Often digital forensic investigators might also venture into neighboring fields such as eDiscovery and penetration testing. Each of those fields has specific skill sets that can be augmented with a knowledge and understanding of digital forensics. With all areas of cyber, there is always room for growth in a career from analyst to the director. It is important to keep in mind when exploring job opportunities in the field that they exist in both the public sector side as well as the private sector side. Depending on which area the day-to-day activities will vary and so will the job requirements.

Often the term “expert” is used in the field of digital forensics. This term comes into play in the field when testimony is given regarding the findings of an investigation. There are many qualifiers that can make someone an expert from job experience, certifications, and education. Each of these areas can be a building block for the ideal expert that is well balanced and knowledgeable about the area they are working in. It is important to note that no one is an expert in all things and there is always room for growth and knowledge.

What skills are needed?

When it comes to skills there are different opinions on what makes a good digital investigator. There are some skills that can be taught such as the knowledge of file systems, computers, mobiles, and the like. Other skills are those that are natural for a person such as curiosity, creativity, and problem-solving. Finding a balance of both the hard and soft skill sets will prove to have a well-balanced digital forensic investigator.

The most common question brought up by many is if a college degree is required to be a digital forensic professional and qualify as the “expert” in the field. Digital forensics is an interesting science field that evolved not from a traditional educational background, but from the necessity of the data that needed to be found. With that in mind, a college degree is not always a requirement but can give you a solid foundation and understanding of the field. Many people are very successful in the field with degrees that are not directly digital forensic related. Someone with a background in psychology can give great insight into the motive and people behind the data but will need to add digital skills for working with the data. All can enter the field if they can refine the skills needed to do the work.

What is required is the skills that can accomplish the day-to-day investigative needs of the organization. These can include the basics such as maintaining a chain of custody, imaging computers, media, and smartphones to diving into the data that each of these sources holds.

Before starting a college degree, exploring some of the professional certifications out there might give you a better starting point if you want to continue in the field through formal education. With many of the professional certifications, there will be fees for the courses and this pre-investment will tell you if you are going to find the love of your life in the field or just want to break up. Examples of the professional certifications can include:

  • CHFI Certified Hacking Forensic Investigator
  • CFCE Certified Forensic Computer Examiner
  • CCE Certified Computer Examiner
  • CSFA Cyber Security Forensic Analyst
  • GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner (GCFE)
  • GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA)
  • GIAC Reverse Engineering Malware (GREM)
  • GIAC Network Forensic Analyst (GNFA)
  • GIAC Advanced Smartphone Forensics (GASF)
  • GIAC Cyber Threat Intelligence (GCTI)

These certifications are only to get you started in the field and are followed by a variety of technology-based certifications from the tool providers in the field of digital forensics. The learning process never ends, and there is always a move to another certification. However, they will give you a feel for what is involved in the work in the field prior to spending the time and money on a 4-year degree.

In addition to these certifications are other skills that are needed to ensure you are successful in the field. These include good written and verbal communication, and problem-solving. It does not matter if you work in the public or private sector, you will be presenting the details of your findings to someone for review. Having the ability to express potentially very technical data to a non-technical audience is a skill and it requires good written and verbal communication. The ability to be concise and precise can ensure that your investigative objective is clearly stated to all the parties involved. In addition, the ability to problem solve is one of the core needs of every digital forensic investigator. Reviewing data that has been used and worked through requires the ability to think through solutions. It is rare that everything goes well in the different steps of the digital forensic process. Being able to think on your feet and work through the process and document your solutions is all part of the digital forensic process.

Practical Experience

The area of practical experience is a difficult barrier to overcome as it requires employment to receive it, and if you can’t get employed how do you get the experience. It is a difficult area that is true for all professions. Ideally, the role of an internship would give you some experience on top of the certifications that you have worked on. However, there are not as many internships as there are people entering the field, so what do you do?

There are a couple of options and one of them might be to look at your experience in the form of an apprenticeship instead of an internship. When you become an apprentice, you agree to work for a certain amount of time at a lower wage to enter the field under the guidance of an experienced professional. This compromise on the wage for the value of their time to give you experience ends up getting both parties what they want. However, this terminology is not common in the technology field but is due for a resurgence to help with the experience problem that happens in the world of cyber. It is time to be bold as you enter the field and propose this option to potential employers so you can get your foot in the door and get that required experience.

How do you stay active?

The field of digital forensics is a very active space where there are new techniques, issues, and technology every day. Many people that have a difficult time with focus love the field of digital forensics because it is different every day. Even with standard foundational principles, you can still get the variety that many crave in a career.

One of the keys to staying active in the field is participating in technology. Although many people do not like to participate in things such as social media, you cannot be expected to be a good investigator of something you have never done. As an example, how can you describe what a chocolate chip cookie tastes like if you have never had a bite? One of the key components in the career path of a digital forensic investigator is to experience the technology. If you are working on a smartphone case and it is on an Android, and you only use Apple, how can you be expected to understand how the data works on an Android. Training can only take you so far to understand the ones and zeros but to understand the user behind those pieces of data you need to understand how it is used.

One of the other areas that allow you to keep on the edge of the field is membership in different organizations and groups. Finding a group of like-minded professionals that you can seek out answers with is helpful with every career. Some of the more popular organizations such as IACIS not only offer organizational membership, but training as well. Others offer areas where you can seek out experts and other professionals such as Cyber Social Hub in a friendly social environment. Each of the different groups can give you a unique perspective and support that are critical when it comes to a career in the space.

Finally, get involved in events in the space. There is always a call for papers or options to get published in the field. Putting yourself out there will only improve what your overall career experience and satisfaction will be. Join events both in person and online, and invest in your networking. Events such as PFIC are open to all levels and has an open call for papers each year. Look for scholarships to events or simply politely ask; you will be pleasantly surprised on the response of support from the industry. 

What is the downside?

With all careers, there is a downside, and it is not all feeling like a superhero for catching the bad guy. The field of digital forensics can be an emotionally difficult field. When looking through an investigation, you are looking for data that is proving or disproving an act. In that process of looking through data, you will see a wide range of data that can affect your psychological state. That can be difficult if you don’t build into your process a coping mechanism that will help to silo that information off from the rest of your life.

The other side is the stress associated with a  field that is always set on “red alert” and everyone has a sense of urgency. Working through data is not always a fast process, but it is always a stressful one. Make sure part of your career process is learning how to cope with the stress management that is needed working in a field that is always on alert.

Where is the field going?

The field of digital forensics has great prospects moving forward. With more and more data being generated every day, there is always going to be a need for someone who can dive in. Cyber will always have growth as more and more of our lives go online and digital, so finding your own area in that larger area to hang your hat can secure your career offerings for a lifetime. Digital forensics offers consistency and variety all in one, so it can be the perfect balance for those who like to look for the details. There are prospects that allow you to work in both the public and private sectors as well as in-person or virtually. Overall, the field of digital forensics is well balanced and looking for the same type of professional.

In addition to the field being open for different people, it is open to the new technology that has surged to the top of our needs with cloud becoming common in all types of investigations, and the need for knowledge on smartphones and mobiles. There will always be a new piece of technology that pushes to the top that is waiting for the next digital forensic professional to grab onto and get into the data.

You can reference other perspectives on the field with their review at the following sites:

https://www.infosecinstitute.com/podcast/get-started-in-computer-forensics-entry-level-tips-skills-and-career-paths/

https://www.forensicscolleges.com/careers/computer-forensics-examiner

https://cisomag.eccouncil.org/5-high-paying-computer-forensics-jobs-you-need-to-know/

This article was written by Amber Schroader and originally appeared on the Paraben Corp. blog here: https://paraben.com/how-to-get-started-in-the-field-of-digital-forensics/

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