In 1994, a computer programmer from Russia led a group of criminals in a $10 million robbery of a U.S. bank without ever setting foot in America, in what may have been the first major modern cybercrime.1 In the wake of this attack and others, the very specialized field of crime investigation known as digital forensics began to grow to meet the need to analyze data from electronic crime scenes, process it into actionable intelligence, and present the findings to law enforcement.
Today, digital forensics experts and cyber investigators are in high demand, as the proliferation of cybercrimes such as phishing, ransomware, network- and cloud-systems hacking, and malware attacks continue to grow unabated.
What is the difference between cybersecurity and digital forensics?
Cybersecurity and digital forensics are related, but they’re not the same. While cybersecurity deals with protecting an organization’s systems and digital assets by preventing intrusions before they occur, digital forensics is concerned with analyzing intrusions after they've occurred.
A digital forensics investigator examines computing systems for evidence of cybercrime. Though usually adept at covering their tracks, cybercriminals often leave behind digital “fingerprints” on the systems they penetrate. Digital investigators help retrieve information from computers and other digital storage devices looking for such clues, and what they learn can be used to shore up vulnerabilities and avert similar intrusions in the future. It can also be used by law enforcement to track down those responsible and be submitted as evidence in court proceedings whenever hackers are prosecuted.
Digital forensics experts are needed by virtually every type of organization, especially corporations that handle large volumes of sensitive data. And because digital forensics is often a part of criminal investigations, government agencies—particularly law-enforcement agencies—are primary employers.
What is the employment outlook for digital forensics professionals?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not specifically list digital forensics as a job category in its Occupational Outlook Handbook. Rather, it categorizes the work they do under “information security analyst,” or more broadly, under “forensic science technicians.”
BLS forecasts job growth for information security analysts of 35 percent between 2021 and 2031. Forensic science technicians should see 11 percent job growth during that period. Both are higher than the average rate of 8 percent across all occupations.2
What can you do with a master’s in digital forensics?
A master’s degree in digital forensics can prepare you to meet the growing demand for IT professionals with investigative, leadership, and executive skills who know how to detect whether a system has been compromised and can analyze, preserve, and present the data as findings to those who need it.
"The focus of computer forensics has shifted over the past 10 years from physical laptops to cloud-based systems," said Jesse Varsalone, collegiate associate professor of cybersecurity at University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) and former teacher at the Defense Cyber Investigations Training Academy. "Most of the jobs are related to network intrusions, investigations, and incident response where a company is compromised or the victim of a malware attack."
Job titles that fall under the general category of digital forensics include
Digital Forensics Investigator: These highly specialized professionals are a combination of reverse-engineer, programmer, and detective. Salary.com estimates the median yearly salary at about $81,000.3
Cyber Forensics Analyst: The job of the cyber forensics analysts is to gather and analyze digital evidence of cyber intrusions. Median yearly salary is about $109,000 per year, according to Salary.com.3
Cyber Threat Intelligence Analyst: The job of these professionals is to monitor and report on external cyber threat data to provide actionable intelligence. The average salary for a cyber threat intelligence analyst is about $108,000 per year, according to ZipRecruiter.com.4
Incident Response Manager: These professionals oversee and prioritize activities related to detecting and remediating system attacks. The median annual salary for an Incident Response Manager is about $117,000.3
Network Exploitation Analyst: These analysts examine network data to identify vulnerabilities and provide support against high value targets. Talent.com estimates the average annual salary at about $131,000.5
Employers are seeking candidates with excellent analytical skills, in-depth knowledge of computer languages and operating systems, and expertise in cyber forensics to fill these positions. Some employers may also require basic industry certifications, such as CompTIA A+ or Net+. Completing an undergraduate degree at UMGC with a major in cybersecurity is a good place to start.
In addition, employers may require more specialized certifications, like EC-Council Certified Incident Handler (E|CIH), EnCase Certified Examiner (EnCE), GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA), GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner (GCFE) and GIAC Network Forensic Analyst (GNFA).
The Master of Science in digital forensics and cyber investigation program at UMGC can help you develop the digital forensics skills and cybersecurity knowledge you need to gain an edge in this field. The program is also designed to prepare you to take the exams for any of the specialized certifications listed above. Plus, if you complete your undergraduate degree at UMGC with a major in cybersecurity technology, UMGC allows you to apply 6 undergraduate credits toward this master’s program, saving you time and money.
Why Choose UMGC?
UMGC was founded more than 75 years ago specifically to serve the higher education needs of working adults and servicemembers like you. UMGC is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and is a constituent institution of the University System of Maryland.
UMGC offers online courses that you can access virtually anywhere in the world. As innovators in online education since 1997, UMGC delivers a seamless, collaborative, and satisfying online classroom experience that prepares you for today's digital business environment. The university has repeatedly received awards and recognition for our online educational programs and commitment to excellence.
Your courses are taught by our faculty of highly successful and experienced scholar-practitioners, many of whom are leaders in their fields. A dedicated UMGC success coach will support you throughout your academic journey in mapping out your education and career goals and assisting with class selection. And wherever you are in your career, you'll always have access to UMGC’s lifetime career services to help you in your job search and career development.
If you're someone with a strategic, analytical mind who enjoys working with computers and solving problems, a career in digital forensics could be a good fit and a rewarding way to make a positive difference in today’s data-driven workplace.
Learn More About UMGC’s Digital Forensics and Cyber Investigations program