What Is Computer Forensics? Types, Techniques, and Careers

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Cybercrime is on the rise and jobs in computer forensics are in demand. Learn more about this field and how you can enter it with the following article.

[Featured image] A computer forensics employee stands at a workstation with server unit behind them.

What is computer forensics?

Computer forensics is also known as digital or cyber forensics. It is a branch of digital forensic science. Using technology and investigative techniques, computer forensics helps identify, collect, and store evidence from an electronic device. Computer forensics can be used by law enforcement agencies in a court of law or by businesses and individuals to recover lost or damaged data.

Why is computer forensics important?

Computer forensics becomes more relevant daily as the world becomes increasingly digitally connected. The management of digital evidence is critical for solving cyber crimes and recovering important, compromised data. A computer forensics investigator's job is to collect, examine, and safeguard this evidence. 

Types of computer forensics

Computer forensics always involves gathering and analyzing evidence from digital sources. Some common types include:

  • Database forensics: Retrieval and analysis of data or metadata found in databases

  • Email forensics: Retrieval and analysis of messages, contacts, calendars, and other information on an email platform

  • Mobile forensics: Retrieval and analysis of data like messages, photos, videos, audio files, and contacts from mobile devices

  • Memory forensics: Retrieval and analysis of data stored on a computer's RAM (random access memory) and/or cache

  • Network forensics: Use of tools to monitor network traffic like intrusion detection systems and firewalls

  • Malware forensics: Analysis of code to identify malicious programs like viruses, ransomware, or Trojan horses

Common computer forensics techniques

When conducting an investigation and analysis of evidence, computer forensics specialists use various techniques; here are a few examples:

  • Deleted file recovery. This technique involves recovering and restoring files or fragments deleted by a person—either accidentally or deliberately—or by a virus or malware. 

  • Reverse steganography. The process of attempting to hide data inside a digital message or file is called steganography. Reverse steganography happens when computer forensic specialists look at the hashing of a message or the file contents. A hashing is a string of data, which changes when the message or file is interfered with. 

  • Cross-drive analysis. This technique involves analyzing data across multiple computer drives. Strategies like correlation and cross-referencing are used to compare events from computer to computer and detect anomalies. 

  • Live analysis. This technique involves analyzing a running computer's volatile data, which is data stored in RAM (random access memory) or cache memory. This helps pinpoint the cause of abnormal computer traffic. 

Is computer forensics a good career?

According to statistics from the Insurance Information Institute, cybercrime is continually rising, resulting in serious economic costs to individuals and companies [1]. Consequently, jobs in computer forensics are more prevalent than ever. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicts an 8 percent growth rate for computer systems analyst careers between 2021 and 2031 [2].

Computer forensics career paths

Computer forensics professionals can work in a variety of industries. Career insights like salary and job requirements can differ from role to role. You can learn more about specific jobs in the field of computer forensics in the following sections.

Note: All US salary information was sourced from Glassdoor in January 2023. It includes the average base salary and the median reported additional pay.

Digital forensics analyst

As a digital forensic analyst, you will examine the scenes of cybercrimes and assist in investigations. Job duties may include digital surveillance, identifying compromised data and hacking patterns, detecting hidden or encrypted data, and file recovery. To do this job, you'll need to have a thorough understanding of computer hardware and software, systems, databases, and programming languages.

Educational requirements: Sixty-three percent of digital forensics analysts have a bachelor's degree, 15 percent have an associate degree, and 8 percent have a master's degree [3]. Most commonly, digital forensics analysts study criminal justice or biology.

Average annual salary (US): $80,270

Information security analyst (or IT security analyst)

As an information security analyst, you'll protect computer networks and systems by planning and implementing security systems. Job duties may include installing and maintaining firewalls and encryption programs, auditing and testing security software, monitoring access to high-security data, identifying cybersecurity threats, and investigating cybersecurity breaches. 

Educational requirements: Sixty-two percent of information security analysts have a bachelor's degree, 20 percent have an associate degree, and 13 percent have a master's [4]. Information security analysts typically study business, computer science, or computer information systems.

Average annual salary (US): $89,881

Malware analyst

As a malware analyst, you'll focus your attention on malware, or malicious software installed to destroy computer systems or access sensitive data. Types of cyberthreats you'll deal with include viruses, bots, worms, rootkits, ransomware, and Trojan horses. To perform this job, you'll need a strong knowledge of operating systems, programming languages, data recovery, and various malware tools like system monitors, network monitors, and debuggers. 

Educational requirements: Sixty-one percent of cybersecurity analysts have a bachelor's degree, 19 percent have an associate degree, and 15 percent have a master's degree [5]. Malware analysts typically study computer information systems, information technology, or computer science.

Average annual salary (US): $86,991 

Additional job titles in the computer forensics field

How to get a job in computer forensics

Educational backgrounds vary from job to job in the computer forensics field. Some employers may prefer candidates with an associate or bachelor's degree. If you're transferring from a related career or you already have a degree, consider supplementing your academic credentials with a certificate or specialized training to increase your competitiveness as a job candidate.

In the following sections, we'll examine relevant degrees, graduate certificates, and Professional Certificates for aspiring computer forensics professionals. Think about the options that are best suited for your career goals, budget, and prior work experience.

Gain essential computer forensics skills.

Examples of technical skills that can prepare you for a computer forensics role include:

  • Ability to understand mechanical processes, spatial awareness, numerical concepts, and data interpretation

  • Understanding of computer hardware and software

  • Knowledge of computer programming languages

  • Familiarity with law and criminal investigation

  • Understanding of cybersecurity fundamentals like cyber-attack forecasting, threat detection, and system and network protection 

  • Knowledge of cybersecurity standards

A few workplace or non-technical skills for computer forensics professionals to master include:

  • Ability to think analytically to organize, understand, and make conclusions about data efficiently 

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills to explain complex information clearly and concisely

  • Attention to detail for thorough investigative processes

Earn a degree or certification in computer forensics.

It's okay if you still need to gain the skills mentioned above. You can qualify yourself for a job in computer forensics in various ways. Here are a few relevant degrees and graduate certificates for you to consider:

Certificates for aspiring computer forensics professionals to earn:

Get started in computer forensics today

Gain in-demand skills for a career in cybersecurity with the IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate on Coursera. Learn from industry leaders at your own pace as you gain hands-on experience with tools like Wireshark, IBM QRadar, and IBM Guardium. 

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IBM Cybersecurity Analyst

Get ready to launch your career in cybersecurity. Build job-ready skills for an in-demand role in the field, no degree or prior experience required.

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113,409 already enrolled

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Average time: 3 month(s)

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Skills you'll build:

information security analyst, IT security analyst, security analyst, Junior cybersecurity analyst, Information Security (INFOSEC), IBM New Collar, Malware, Cybersecurity, Cyber Attacks, database vulnerabilities, Network Security, Sql Injection, networking basics, scripting, forensics, Penetration Test, Computer Security Incident Management, Application Security, threat intelligence, network defensive tactics, cyber attack, Breach (Security Exploit), professional certificate, cybersecurity analyst

Or, if you're new to the field, consider enrolling in a beginner-friendly introductory course like Digital Forensics Essentials (DFE) from EC-Council:

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Digital Forensics Essentials (DFE)

Digital Forensics Essentials helps learners increase their competency and expertise in digital forensics and information security skills, thereby adding ...

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Average time: 1 month(s)

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Skills you'll build:

Digital Forensics, Computer Forensics

Article sources

1

Insurance Information Institute (III). "Facts + Statistics: Identify theft and cybercrime, https://www.iii.org/fact-statistic/facts-statistics-identity-theft-and-cybercrime." Accessed January 18, 2023.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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