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How to Become a Digital Forensics Expert

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

Credit: Stephen Coburn/ShutterstockCredit: Stephen Coburn/ShutterstockDigital forensics experts are computing professionals who understand how to collect, preserve, document and present evidence relating to various kinds of cybercrimes. They are accomplished data analysts and sleuths who can ferret out information on computer systems and from communications activities by digging into (and often by resurrecting) deleted files, wiped disk drives and other storage media, protocol traces and more.

To do this kind of work, digital forensics experts need to understand operating and file systems in depth, and how applications, network communications and operating systems collect, represent and store all kinds of data. Forensics experts are often called upon in civil or criminal legal proceedings. They must possess an intimate understanding of how to manage the chain of evidence necessary to prove that the bits and bytes they talk about in court are the same bits and bytes that reside on computers, cellphones or other devices obtained as evidence during the course of an investigation.

MORE: Best Computer Forensics Certifications

Most digital forensics experts work for computing companies, specialist consulting firms or law enforcement organizations at all levels of government (municipal, state, federal and so forth). Most police departments or law enforcement organizations maintain digital forensics staff who help prosecute cases that involve digital evidence, while legal firms tend to retain the services of private firms and individuals who work for those accused of such crimes on the other side of that adversarial relationship. Likewise, security companies often number digital forensics experts among their staff to reconstruct how attacks occur and learn what kinds of symptoms they present as such attacks get underway, as well as what kinds of traces they might leave behind should those attacks succeed.

Because the volume and variety of attacks keeps escalating, and so many civil and criminal legal cases now involve digital evidence, digital forensics experts are in high demand. Understanding and responding to digital attacks also boosts demand for such highly skilled professionals. Referring to a broad cluster of such jobs as "forensics science technicians," the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that employment for such professionals will grow 27 percent from 2014 to 2024. (This includes technicians who work with physical evidence that must be subjected to chemical, biological and other forms of physical analysis, as well as those who work with digital evidence.) That puts it among the steepest of growth curves for the hundreds of job roles this agency tracks. Furthermore, demand is expected to remain high because digital forensics experts have a vital role to play in stopping hackers from mounting attacks, and in presenting evidence to help convict hackers whose efforts lead to their legal prosecution.

Essential education, background and skills

Many employers look for digital forensics candidates with a bachelor's degree in computer science, law enforcement or a computer-related field. If you've got digital forensics experience, a stable work history and solid references or letters of recommendation, it's possible to land a job in digital forensics without a college degree. But a degree – especially one with some forensics- and law-enforcement-related coursework included – will help.

An intermediate-level digital forensics position usually demands two to four years of direct experience in digital forensics, or some combination of education and experience. Indeed, this is a field where experience counts greatly, because eliciting and obtaining evidence requires strong computing skills and knowledge. Nothing teaches and hones such skills as well as doing the work, and that's why experienced forensics experts can easily earn significant six-figure incomes (especially those who serve as expert witnesses in the courtroom).

No matter how you prepare, or seek to qualify, for a career as a digital forensics expert, here are the skills you should have or plan to develop:

  • Understand how to find and expose hidden, deleted, encrypted or obscured files, logs, browsing history and more
  • Establish and maintain a chain of evidence for digital storage media of all kinds, including maintaining and securing originals, generating and analyzing bit-level copies, documenting all accesses and uses, and establishing ownership and control information
  • Understand the types of legal evidence, and the legal rules regarding how evidence is obtained, accessed, documented and reported upon
  • Understand security incidents, attack methodologies and incident response
  • Understand access control mechanisms, including authentication and authorization, rights and privileges, accounts and controls, encryption/decryption, and how to attack and penetrate digital defenses including technical attacks and social engineering
  • Have working knowledge of a variety of digital forensics tools and software, necessary to obtain, document and display or report upon digital evidence
  • Be a multi-tasker, with good time-management and self-motivation skills
  • Be an excellent communicator (written and verbal), able to communicate deep technical details in simple, everyday language (in written form in analyses and reports, and verbal form in providing testimony)

Digital forensics experts benefit from cultivating scripting and programming skills, with a particular emphasis on encryption and decryption, as well as text search and manipulation. You don't necessarily need years of programming or scripting experience to be a digital forensics expert, but basic proficiency or better will be of great help in doing the job properly and well.

Must-Have Certifications

Digital forensics experts should consider earning one or more certifications to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. Some forensics certifications are vendor-neutral, and recognize knowledge and skills applicable across all facets of the digital forensics field. Others are vendor-specific and focus on specific and highly regarded forensics tool suites. Many digital forensics credentials, including some of the best ones, primarily focus on law enforcement professionals, and may not be readily available to the public.

Here are three of the most popular and sought-after information security certifications:

  • Certified Computer Examiner (CCE): An intermediate-level certification for IT professionals, security officers and managers, security or forensics consultants, and so forth with three or more years of experience working in the field. Earning a CCE requires passing a hands-on practical exam. At the outset of the exam, students must complete a proctored, online multiple- choice exam along with hands-on analysis of a series of problems. Next, candidates conduct a forensic examination of a test drive handed to them, along with an assignment to be completed. The exam culminates with a report of their findings submitted to an assigned assessor. Formal training is not required but comes highly recommended for this coveted credential.
  • Certified Forensics Computer Examiner (CFCE): A mid-level certification from the International Association of Computer Investigative Specialists (IACIS), the CFCE aims primarily at a law enforcement audience. (Individuals must be employed in law enforcement to qualify for full IACIS membership, though associated membership is available to those who work in the private sector.) The process of earning a CFCE starts with a detailed formal application and an equally exhaustive background check. From there, the CFCE involves a two-step testing process much like that for the CCE. A peer review involves accepting and completing four practical problems related to core skills and knowledge for the credential. Solutions go through peer review and must be judged successfully completed before candidates move on to a certification phase, wherein they must analyze and report on a forensic hard drive image provided to them for that purpose. They must compile a written report to document their activities and findings. If judged successful, candidates will become CFCE certified.
  • EnCase Certified Examiner (EnCE): Guidance Software offers one of the best-known and highly regarded computer forensics tool suites in use in today's marketplace, known as Encase Forensics. (The company offers a variety of other forensics tools as well.) To qualify for this credential, candidates must show proof of at least 64 hours of authorized computer forensic training and/or 12 months of qualified work experience. They must also complete an application, and then complete an exam with both a written and practical, hands-on portion that involves using Encase Forensics to obtain, analyze and report on specific evidence.

Other vendor- or platform-specific digital forensics certifications are available, including AccessData and SAINT, so there are other options from which you may choose in this category. For a more complete picture on these kinds of certification credentials, see the latest TechTarget/SearchSecurity survey story "Introduction: Information Security and Cybersecurity Certifications." Among its four parts, it includes a reasonably complete list of every computer forensics-related certification worth knowing about.

Information Security Training and Resources

Candidates interested in computer forensics training and information will find many great resources available online. A good place to start is with Forensix.org's Computer Forensics, Cybercrime, and Steganography Resources website. Professional associations and societies that focus on digital forensics also offer great resources, information and pointers to training and learning opportunities. These include:

Given the necessary intertwining of law enforcement and government, interested candidates should also check out the many U.S. government websites that offer forensics information, resources and training. These include:

  • Department of Defense Cyber Crime Center (DC3)
  • Department of Justice Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section (CCIPS)
  • FBI Cyber Crime investigations
  • National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C)

Further investigation online will turn up hundreds of similar sites and resources at the state and municipal levels. You'll also find plenty of other digital forensics courses and boot camps as well.

Surveying Information Security Opportunities

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says the median annual salary for a forensic science technician is $56,750. Qualified digital forensics experts who work outside government will easily earn double that amount, or more, depending on the employer and location where you wind up.

Though jobs for digital forensics experts abound, your search for such jobs will benefit from visiting technology-oriented job boards such as Monster, Indeed, SimplyHired or LinkedIn Jobs. You should post your resume on these sites, and send yourself alerts when new digital forensics job listings pop up.

You may also hear from recruiters bearing opportunities at companies that don't advertise publicly. If you want to work for a specific employer, dig up opportunities using all available means. You'll want to visit its online job board regularly, use your LinkedIn and other networks to ask around about forensics jobs, and reach out to the company's HR folks to make contact and express interest in a forensics job, should one be available.

Don't forget to exploit free resources such as LinkedIn security analyst groups and Reddit. The various professional forensics organizations are also great places to hunt for job opportunities, as are other forensics-oriented forums and online communities. They serve as terrific sources for information about employers, certifications worth chasing and job leads.

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