In the old days, when investigators wanted to research a case, they would go to an office, open file cabinets and rifle through dozens of folders to find the documents that would help them build their case.
Not anymore. In today's digital world, that same task requires more than a knack for "creative problem solving." Today's hi-tech crimes require high-tech investigators.
Welcome to the world of digital forensics, where specialists recover and produce digital evidence for court testimony by looking into the software and hardware of computers, tablets, phones, smart televisions and just about any electronic device that stores digital records.
The Industry Outlook
Are you curious where digital forensic investigators work? How about their annual wages?
Jason Alvarado, lead faculty member for
the digital forensics program at Richland College, said every organization needs digital forensics.
"If a company doesn't have digital forensics, they're looking into how they're going to get digital forensics, or they're putting a law firm or a big consulting company on retainer to handle their digital forensics," he said. "Human resources departments have to use digital forensics just to conduct an employee investigation these days."
Alvarado said that people who have
a digital forensics associate degree can expect to make $50,000 a year in their first job out of school. He noted that digital forensics experts will max out at $160,000 to $180,000.
"Those people are going to be your in-demand expert witnesses who can testify in court for companies that aren't hiring digital forensic experts," Alvarado explained. "They're hiring an expert witness who happens to know digital forensics."
Students at Work
Paula Viall, a digital forensics student at Richland, entered the digital forensics field after the accounting job she had was shipped overseas.
"I did some research and found this is an up-and-coming field. It is wide open, it's growing here in the U.S., and it's less likely to be outsourced because you need people on the ground. I've enjoyed every minute of it," she said.
Paula said one of the first things that she learned when she studying digital forensics was not to worry about not having the IT background. In fact, sometimes an IT background can hinder students with mindset of 'this is how things are done.'"
"We're not looking necessarily for a technical person," said Professor Alvarado. "I can make them technical. I can teach them the hard skills that they need, but it's hard for me to teach somebody to problem-solve creatively."
Melissa Sokolowski graduated from Richland in 2012 and now works as a forensic examiner. She said the "phenomenal" digital forensics program at Richland helped her get a position at Xerox just two weeks after graduating.
"I like the challenge of forensics. I like to research and get to the root of the problem. It's always changing. Evidence is always different, and I learn something new every day. It's a fascinating field," she said.
Melissa recently launched an internal group for women in information security at her company. She also attends STEM Girls conferences and volunteers to educate girls about information security.
The digital forensics industry changes rapidly, but Melissa keeps up by doing a lot of reading and by following people on Twitter and LinkedIn, where members often point to relevant articles that help her maintain her skills. She added that the industry is migrating and that companies are looking for incident responders and forensic analysts — people who can detect digital breaches and find out how they happened.
A Job with Independence
Professor Alvarado said people who work in digital forensics can expect to do much self-directed work; however, on more complex cases, they work as a team.
"Companies want a person who is very regimented and focused. Complete a task and move on to the next one, but be very organized in the way they approach their day," he added.
Viall said classroom work is similar.
"One of the things that they teach us here (at Richland) is how to work on our own and come up with procedures that need to be followed. It's not like you're going to be thrown out there and then try to figure out what a company wants. They'll say, 'This is what I want from you,' and you'll say, 'OK, I have that knowledge base.'"
A Career as a P.I.
A slightly different digital forensics career path is available at Eastfield College for people who are interested in a career as a private investigator.
Patrick Patterson, coordinator for the criminal justice program at Eastfield, said the
digital forensics investigations certificate at Eastfield College focuses on the investigative side of digital forensics.
Some differences do exist between the two programs, Patterson said. "They might look at how to tap into a cell phone and break into it. We look at the legal side for prosecutions."
Patterson said students who earn the certificate and associate degree can obtain a private investigator license because the state will waive the three years of investigative experience that normally is required.
The certificate is offered at only one other school in Texas.
A huge market exists for private investigators, Patterson added, because "people are always willing to pay someone else to do the snooping for them." Banks are also constantly looking for personnel to staff their fraud departments.
Real Life Applications
Remember the case of Casey Anthony, who was charged with the murder of her child, Caylee? Professor Alvarado said this is a good example of how digital forensics helps in criminal cases.
Investigators looked at the Google searches on Anthony's computer and correlated it with the forensic trace evidence that was found in the trunk of her car. Anthony eventually was found not guilty by a jury, but it shows how computer evidence is often paired other types of physical evidence.
"The way [our professors] put the subject into context using real-life cases is amazing," explained Joseph Barsis, a first-year student in Eastfield's criminal justice program. Joseph said he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement because he has a knack for working with computers and his step- grandfather was a police officer. He hopes to one day earn a doctorate.
The digital forensics program at Richland College has multiple articulation agreements with four-year institutions, including Texas A&M University, Oklahoma State University and Champlain College, a private school that is considered the preeminent place to go for a digital forensics education.