SYWTBA: Become a Digital Forensic Scientist

Do you want to be a crime solver in cyberspace? Track digital terrorists into the Cloud? Read part five of our comprehensive guide to getting ahead. For previous entries on careers within forensics, don’t forget to start here and keep working your way through.

 

By the time you read this sentence, 7 seconds will have passed and 126 adults will become the victims of cyber crimes around the world. That’s a few million victims every day. Norton’s 2012 Cybercrime Report indicated that the direct losses for consumers worldwide was $110 Billion USD. And that stunning amount is rising exponentially, particularly when it comes to social media and mobile phone apps.

Ask Sony, a corporate entity and also the victim of North Korean hackers (maybe) who didn’t get the satire in a comedic movie they produced and distributed about assassinating their President. These cyber terrorists stole well-encrypted information, leaked private emails and employee contacts and subsequently threatened theater-goers with death if the film The Interview was screened. The reaction from governments and private industry will continue to play out on the world’s foremost battlegrounds, but this time most of the battles will not occur in the physical realm.

It is no secret that agents from countries like China, North Korea and even allies have poked holes in what were considered secure firewalls at the Pentagon, MI5, the White House and anywhere else prying eyes are not welcome. Industrial espionage no longer necessitates spies breaking into laboratories in the middle of the night. Now, companies are paying teenagers to sneak into secure servers across oceans while sitting in their parent’s basement. These days, it is information which is the pirate loot so desired by criminals worldwide.

Physical crimes are still a horrific problem, but the numbers pale when comparing victims. The global homicide rate for murders (not including wars, suicides and the wounded) as calculated by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development is reported to be 441,750 shooting victims annually, about 1/3 of the daily count of cybercrime victims.

Cybercrime is a panacea, and skilled digital forensic scientists are needed on the front lines to track criminals, repair and fortify systems and set up new defences minute by minute. Victories come as cases are solved. In July of 2013, five Russian hackers stole $300,000,000 from credit cards they had acquired illegally. It was a clever crime, but left plenty of tracks for skilled investigators to follow.

 

Decrypted: Three paths to a career in digital forensics

Careers in digital forensics are generally found in the law enforcement fields, from local police departments to institutions like the FBI and the NSA. Students of criminology or law enforcement with a passion for computer science generally work towards this type of employment.

Private firms employ digital forensics experts to test internal security measures – in essence becoming sanctioned hackers who look for the same weaknesses in software security that the black hat hackers search out. These companies don’t care about court, they want to make their data secure.

And then there are the counter-intelligence arms of the governments who are fighting foreign hackers aiming to do real damage to a country’s infrastructure, financial system or international influence. These forensic computer warriors are military or at the highest level of law enforcement. The educational path to this specialty generally goes through military training, such as joining the ROTC or the National Guard in the US while a college student specialising in computer science. After graduation, you will be an officer and head for training you certainly won’t get anywhere else.

 

Spy vs. spy: Air superiority gives way to Cloud control

There are many paths to becoming a digital forensics expert. Because this field is less regulated than medicine or accounting practices, a computer science degree is not required for a person who wants to become a forensic investigator. Many computer experts are self-taught, or learned skills ‘on-the-job’, however, a background in IT or IT security will help provide experience, expertise and credentials. Law enforcement training is also favourable, but one thing is pretty clear: you will need a clean history. Once you begin testifying in court about your investigations, errors you made in the past that may have resulted in a police record will haunt you and taint your credibility.

If you have the kind of hacking skills that can get you pretty far into foreign territory, and you want to use your skills for good, some police departments and computer software companies may be interested in employing you. That, however, is a long shot. If you really want a career in the field, and are convinced that a degree would not only be useful as a bona-fide certification of your skills, then you should look at the path to higher education.

 

Certified and secure: Degree programs for cyber sleuths

There are over 150 colleges, online degree programs and universities in the US alone that offer programmes for those interested in digital forensics. A quick search will yield immediate results. Programmes vary from 2 year certificate to masters degrees and doctorates, so do some research (an investigator’s primary skill) and find one that fits your goals, budget and geographic preferences. Some schools, like Missouri Southern State University offer a double major program: you will graduate after four years with Bachelors of Science degrees in both computer information and criminal justice.

For those ready to take on some of the world’s most deadly cyber terrorists, visit your local military recruiter and see what educational and training programs will supplement your passion for computer forensics and patriotism.

Your Turn: Do you want to join the fight to protect our online lives? Are you ready to become a cyber-warrior in the war against terrorists? Do you have what it takes to match skilled hackers keystroke to keystroke? Tell us in the comments below what motivates you to help eliminate this massive crime wave.

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