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Computer forensics analysts play key roles on cybersecurity and investigation teams. These professionals specialize in gathering and analyzing data related to cyberattacks and illegal online activity. They apply advanced data retrieval and incident analysis skills to cases involving espionage, organized cybercrime, hacking, fraud, terrorism, and the storage and distribution of illegal content.

Successful analysts are detail-oriented and proficient with many technologies. They understand the legal standards that guide criminal investigations and excel in communicating. While some digital forensics analysts work for private companies, many find jobs in law enforcement.

The ongoing evolution of digital threats translates to high demand for computer forensics analysts: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects information security analyst jobs will grow 33% between 2020 and 2030.

This guide provides important information about forensic computer analyst careers, including key skills, major employers, and answers to frequently asked questions.

History of Computer Forensics

The demand for forensic computer analysts first emerged alongside the rise of new personal electronic devices. Extracting evidence from these devices required experts who knew how to navigate these technologies. Thus, in 1984, the FBI and other law enforcement agencies began developing programs to assess computer evidence.

The FBI assembled a team of computer forensics specialists called the Computer Analysis and Response Team (CART) to address the growing mass of digital evidence. Since then, many other law enforcement agencies have developed similar teams of forensic computer analysts.

In recent decades, advances in computer forensics have improved criminal investigations and provided compelling testimony in many trials. As forensic computer analysts become more specialized, they stand to make lasting impacts on the criminal investigative process.

Similar Specializations and Career Paths

The BLS projects a 13% growth in employment across computer and information technology occupations, which includes forensic computer analysts, from 2020 to 2030 — faster than the average for all occupations. The table below includes career and salary details for some of these positions.

Career Description Required Education Required Experience Average Annual Salary, April 2022
Security Software Developer Security software developers design new security technologies and improve existing security programs. They may also implement new security protocols into existing software. Bachelor's degree in software engineering, computer science, or a related field Experience with computer languages like C++, Python, and Java preferred $73,440
Security Specialist Security specialists implement security measures that protect computer systems and networks. They also secure data networks, prevent security breaches, and design security improvements. Bachelor's degree in computer science, information security, or a related field Information security and project management work experience preferred $77,090
Security Manager Security managers lead operations related to information security. They oversee employees like information security analysts and administrators. Bachelor's degree in information technology, cybersecurity or related field required; master's degree in cybersecurity or information systems preferred 5+ years of professional experience in the information security field $119,240
Security Architect Security architects predict information security threats and design systems to deter them. These senior professionals design, implement, and supervise computer and network security systems. Bachelor's degree in computer science, information security, or a related field required; master's degree in information technology or cybersecurity preferred 5+ years of professional experience in information security positions $127,510

Source: Payscale

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What Does a Computer Forensics Analyst Do?

Computer forensics analysts assist in the investigation of crimes and cybersecurity incidents. Often, they recover hidden, encrypted, and deleted information for law enforcement agencies. They also follow chains of custody to safeguard the integrity of data and ensure its admissibility in court.

Other duties include offering expert insights during court proceedings about the validity of digital evidence. In some instances, they lead or participate in interviews with suspects or victims. Digital forensics specialists also help prepare evidence before criminal trials.

Computer forensics experts commonly work in the criminal justice system. Private industries such as financial services, information technology, and defense also employ these professionals. Privately employed digital forensics analysts help buttress organizations' internal cybersecurity, developing safeguards to protect against hacks and other cybercrimes.

The profession demands commitment and flexibility, as many digital forensics experts work long hours, especially when investigating active cases. As they gain experience, many computer forensics analysts go on to train newly emerging professionals and junior team members.

The following lists outline key soft and hard skills that aspiring digital forensics analysts need to succeed.

Key Soft Skills

  • A Desire to Learn: Technology and the techniques criminals and hackers use change fast. Digital forensics professionals must constantly update and expand their knowledge to stay current in the field.
  • Commitment to Professional Development: Top-performing computer forensics analysts push themselves toward higher levels of performance through ongoing development, training, and skills upgrades.
  • Communication Skills: Computer forensics experts must communicate effectively in both verbal and written forms, as their work often proves critical to the successful prosecution of cybercriminals.
  • Attention to Detail: Digital forensics analysts must use complicated processes to search for sensitive data. These duties require keen focus and attention to detail.
  • Collaboration: Forensic computer analysts typically work alongside teams of other cybersecurity and law enforcement professionals. They often share ideas and cooperate with other organizations, making collaboration key.

Key Hard Skills

  • Technical Knowledge: Computer forensics professionals require advanced knowledge of digital storage methods, operating systems, programming, hacking techniques, and malware.
  • Ethics: The ability to ethically handle retrieved and recovered data ranks among the most critical hard skills a computer forensics analyst needs.
  • Understand the Law: Digital forensics experts need to understand the legal aspects of criminal investigations to at least an intermediate level.
  • Best Practices: Chain of custody practices are crucial to digital forensics experts' duties. Capable professionals must display mastery of these best practices.
  • Research the Latest Threats: Forensic computer analysts must consistently conduct research of the latest trends in cybersecurity threats and solutions. Staying up-to-date allows these professionals to anticipate new cybercrime developments.

A Day in the Life of a Computer Forensics Analyst

The daily tasks of a computer forensics analyst vary by industry and role. Some analysts focus on just one case. Other professionals may work on multiple investigations simultaneously.

Computer forensics experts must prepare themselves for the abrupt changes and challenges that occur during the investigative process. New discoveries from other colleagues can rapidly change the nature of a case, while emergencies requiring immediate responses also occur without warning.

Routine parts of the job — like team meetings to discuss progress and updates for active investigations — can provide stability for professionals in this fast-paced field.

The role of a computer forensics expert carries many responsibilities. These include:

  • Securing Devices and Systems: Analysts play a frontline role in securing tamper-proof access to electronic devices, systems, and network equipment that may hold digital evidence related to an investigation.
  • Identifying and Following Data Trails: Digital forensics analysts specialize in finding and following the electronic evidence that connects suspects with co-conspirators and accomplices.
  • Writing Reports and Presenting Findings: Computer forensics analysts often need to create written reports of their findings. They must also deliver verbal reports to other parties involved in investigations.

To learn more about these and other day-to-day responsibilities, follow the link below.

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Salary and Career Outlook for Computer Forensics Analysts

According to April 2022 Payscale data, forensic computer analysts earn an average annual salary of $74,800 per year. The lowest-earning 10% make approximately $52,000 per year, while the top 10% of earners make $120,000 or more.

Several factors impact salary: Some industries pay more than others, with top earners typically working in the private sector. Location also plays a significant role, with digital forensics investigators living in large cities typically earning higher average salaries.

Education level, experience, and job function also influence earnings. In general, senior analysts and analysts with advanced degrees tend to make the most money.

$74,800

Annual Average Salary, April 2022

Source: Payscale

How to Become a Computer Forensics Analyst

Most computer forensics analysts enter the field after earning a bachelor's or master's degree. Common majors for these professionals include computer science and computer engineering, as well as specialized cybersecurity degrees that offer concentrated study paths in digital forensics.

Computer forensics analysts also benefit from earning professional certifications. While these credentials are often optional for many positions — no states require digital forensics certifications — an increasingly competitive employment landscape means candidates stand out in the job search if they hold at least one recognized industry certification.

Certifications and additional education can also help computer forensics experts expand, refresh, and upgrade their skills to ensure they remain capable of responding to new cybercrime methods.

Resources for Computer Forensics Analysts

CISA is a national organization that aims to educate professionals about reducing risks to cyber and physical infrastructures. The group provides expertise, industry resources, and security tools to help improve cybercommunications.

BCA is a nonprofit organization offering membership and networking opportunities to cybersecurity professionals in underrepresented communities. Membership benefits include training courses, community outreach, mentorship, and internship opportunities.

NICCS offers online access to information on cybersecurity studies and careers. They provide resources related to cybersecurity awareness, degree programs, training, careers, and talent management.

ISA seeks to advance sustainable systems of cybersecurity through leadership, public policy, and awareness programs. Founded in 2001, the agency has created programs designed to enhance national cybersecurity.

Learn More About Computer Forensics Analysts

Explore our guide about which learning opportunities can help you secure a career as a computer forensics analyst. Read about how location, education, and experience affect salary and employment outlooks for computer forensics analysts. Explore the typical job duties and responsibilities of professional computer forensics analysts in the field. Learn about the top certifications computer forensics analysts can earn to meet preferred qualifications and increase their hireability.

FAQ About Computer Forensics

What do computer forensics analysts do?

Digital forensics analysts mainly work to retrieve, catalog, and safeguard digital data related to cybercrime investigations. They also preserve evidence to ensure its admissibility in court. They may also advise other investigators about the value of digital evidence.

What skills do computer forensics analysts need?

Computer forensics analysts need a balance of soft and hard skills to work in the security industry. Some of those skills include communication, collaboration, technical knowledge, and an understanding of legal procedure.

How long does it take to become a computer forensics analyst?

Most digital forensics analysts hold at least a four-year bachelor's degree when they land their first job. Professionals who pursue master's degrees and/or optional certifications usually take another 1-3 years to complete their education and training.

Is computer forensics a good career?

Computer forensics is part of a rapidly growing career field. For instance, the BLS projects information security analyst careers will grow 33% from 2020 to 2030. These professionals earned a median annual salary of $103,590 as of 2020.

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