SANS Digital Forensics and Incident Response Blog

Getting Started in Digital Forensics: Do You Have What It Takes?

Those of you who have been following our weekly Case Leads articles may have noticed that we've made several mentions of the new issue (#4) of Digital Forensics Magazine. SANS has developed a relationship with the good people over at DFM that we hope will prove beneficial to the Forensics and Incident Response community, and we're trying to highlight some of the interesting elements that have arisen from that relationship.

As of Issue 4, our own forensicator-in-chief, Rob Lee, has become a Contributing Author for Digital Forensics Magazine. I have been in contact with the publisher, Tony Campbell, who has generously given us permission to re-print Rob's first article here. So, in a fairly egregious form of hijacking, I am also using Rob's article as a launch pad for a series of posts I've begun writing under the series name "Getting Started in Digital Forensics." Thanks to both Rob and Tony for unknowingly facilitating my wee bit of banditry. :-) (You can watch for additional "Getting Started" posts in the coming weeks.)

Before you read on to Rob's article however, note that DFM Issue 4 features an exciting contest . One lucky subscriber will receive a free pass to an upcoming SANS Digital Forensics and Incident Response Summit. Depending on the winner's location, they will receive a free pass to either the SANS 2010 European Digital Forensics and Incident Response Summit (London, September 8-9) or next year's Summit in Washington D.C. (July 2011). For a shot at winning this valuable prize, either subscribe or purchase a copy of DFM Issue 4 and submit your entry by August 31, 2010 (midnight BST).

So, without further ado, read on for Rob's view on what it takes to be a digital forensics professional. Or, you can view the article in it's original glory, by downloading the PDF provided by Digital Forensics Magazine.

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So, You Want To Be A Digital Forensics Professional!
Do You Have What It Takes?

by Rob Lee

Many who are just starting out routinely ask about how to start a successful career in digital forensics. These individuals range from completely inexperienced to individuals who have 15 years experience in the information security profession and are looking for a fresh job. Regardless of your background, starting out with new skills may seem intimidating. Here are some thoughts on how to prepare you to take the plunge into digital forensics.

Why Is Becoming A Digital Forensics Expert Challenging?

Science is usually based on that for each science that certain rules will exist that do not change over time. DNA can help match identity. Gravity will not change. Water molecules can be a liquid, solid, or a gas. None of these sciences change on a yearly or even daily basis.

However, with digital forensics, it does change. It radically changes month by month as new technology is released or introduced to the world. Just a simple service pack update to a machine could change everything that you used to know about it. The forensic artifacts could and have completely changed as a result. You can never assume that what works today to solve cases will still work a month from now. In addition, the amount of data being produced yearly is growing fast. It is growing faster than we can keep up with. How can we expect to be able to analyze it all?

For digital forensics, the science is constantly changing and the data potentially used in our analysis is growing exponentially. Digital Forensics is a very challenging field to remain an expert in. So where should you begin if you decide to become an expert in digital forensics.

Do You Have A Passion For Digital Forensics? Do You Have A Capacity To Learn?

There are two factors that I personally look for when I'm talking to an individual who is just starting out. The first is a passion for computer forensics and incident response. The second one is a very large capacity to learn. This individual realizes that everything is consistently changing and that they're always seeking opportunities to educate themselves. These individuals are never truly satisfied. They are always chomping at the bit to get that additional experience so they are moving forward.

Formal education is great and should be sought if possible. However, in the computer forensics world, there is more unknown than is known. As a result, regardless of background or education, the best in the digital forensics field are experts who jump right in when they encounter something that is new that they have not seen before.

Do You Have A Desire To Be An Expert?

The individuals I have seen succeed in any career are those who crave to become an expert in their jobs. Not only do they show this in their professional life, I routinely witness that they have this desire in their out-of-work lives as well. For example, if an individual decides that this summer they will finally learn how to play golf, they would dedicate the time required to not only learning it quickly, but also achieving a level of mastery. By the end of the summer they are not competing with the pros, but usually they are playing "bogey" golf and consistently shooting under a 100. This is a huge accomplishment in that little time frame. This is not random luck. Usually this individual has these types of moments littered through their life. It isn't that they are talented. They are just tenacious and their desire to learn is so great it overcomes the usual point where most people might give up.

During interviews, I seek these individuals out through conversations not involving technology. I can usually get the individual to discuss the year where she learned to snowboard in a season. Or where the individual had to learn basic French because he liked a foreign exchange student. Typically these individuals will be successful at anything they choose to do.

The hard part here is that this is a personality trait, not a skill. This is a trait I happen to seek when I am looking to hire. It just happens to be a good sign of future success.

Do You Have The Right Background?

What skills and experience and skills do you need? I would definitely recommend that someone should become an expert at the Microsoft Windows operating system family. Windows operating systems are extremely complex and challenging to analyze despite their ease of use for the end user. Since 90% of the systems we are investigating are Windows-based, everyone in the field kind of has to have that core. Understanding completely where evidence exists on a windows operating system is crucial. You should also know how to find evidence if your automated tool fails as well. Knowledge of both the file system and operating system is crucial to your future success as a digital forensics professional. The core area is currently Windows, so I would start with the mastery there.

Once you have mastered the core areas in one operating system, I usually recommend that individuals develop a specialty niche area to become an expert in. There is a great need for experts in mobile device forensics. Mobile device forensics would therefore be a very good niche area for obvious future demand.

Get Certified In A Reputable Digital Forensic Certification

The debate over whether to get certified is over. Most career fields have a gateway test that will enable you to practice your chosen profession. Regardless of the color of certification, I personally feel that in order for the profession to be recognized on equal footing with other fields, we need a gateway test. The certifications serve as a way for individuals to independently show their skills meet the minimum standards through testing. Simply taking and passing a test does not make you an expert, but it helps establish you are credentialed with the basic foundations of the profession. For our peer professions to take us seriously, certification and testing of personnel should take place. As a result, become certified in one of the popular certifications.

Where Would Someone With Forensic Skills Find The Best Opportunities Today?

It comes down to location. Look where your large government centers are found, for example, Washington D.C., London, Singapore, or Canberra. These locations should probably be the first on your list of locations that have the highest concentration of digital forensic specialists. For large corporate forensic jobs, look to business capitols and trading centers such as Hong Kong, Dubai, Chicago and New York City. Smaller cities would also be possibilities if the individual concentrates on working for local law firms, local law enforcement, or remote fortune 500 corporate locations. To get your career starting faster though, I would consider moving to one of the larger cities or government centers.

Want To Know Where The Growth Opportunities Are For Digital Forensics?

From my perspective, there are two growth areas for professionals in digital forensics. First, commercial firms are realizing that they need internal digital forensic and incident response experts to help with ongoing and eventual incidents. Everyone is at risk these days. These companies are seeing that they need incident responders and a dedicated computer forensic capability for eDiscovery and operational forensics associated with security operations. They agree they need to grow their own teams.

The second area where I see the largest future growth in digital forensics is in e-discovery. E-discovery has traditionally focused on email and documents retrieval and production with a sprinkle of digital forensics. I see that sprinkle growing to a flood for digital forensics. We are starting to see e-discovery litigation requesting records of chat sessions, social networks, and twitter. E-Discovery lawyers have been handicapped with the thought that many case-changing digital forensic artifacts are deemed too difficult or costly to produce. However, it is theoretically possible with digital forensics today to ask specific questions that could alter the outcome of important cases. For example, a USB device was discovered outside the main door that contained stolen data on it. You could scan the enterprise network easily to identify which workstations that specific USB device had been plugged into and possibly show specifically who placed the stolen files on the device. With e-discovery and digital forensics moving closer together, more cases will be won by those utilizing a technical digital forensics team than those who use the simple document retrieval e-discovery methods currently being used.

In the end, I always tell individuals that in order to succeed in digital forensics you must have.

  • Passion for digital forensics
  • Capacity to learn
  • Desire to become an expert

Even if an individual does not have the complete background yet, I would usually take the risk at giving an individual a chance to prove themselves if they can clearly show that they have the first three traits.

Gregory Pendergast is Interim Information Security Officer at Virginia Commonwealth University. You can find him on Twitter as @greg_pendergast.


Posted August 23, 2010 at 11:16 AM | Permalink | Reply

Mister Reiner

One thing that I would like to add, is that network forensics is a discipline that people can focus on as well. While system level forensics are very important, there are a lot of intrusions that don't generate traditional alarms to alert someone that a compromise has occurred. All network-based intrusions leave forensic evidence in the form of network activity/connectivity and the ability to find evidence of compromise in the absence of any alarms is a skill that is indispensable. The same skills apply to identifying the unauthorized transfer of data outside of the network by insiders and hackers.

Posted August 26, 2010 at 1:13 AM | Permalink | Reply

Nirmal Jose

Hello Gregory,
This article has great stuff. Thanks for posting. You have given general idea about digital forensic''.

Posted March 28, 2011 at 7:28 PM | Permalink | Reply


I'm definitely biased being in the industry, but I think you/Rob hit the nail on the head with this sentence: "Regardless of the color of certification, I personally feel that in order for the profession to be recognized on equal footing with other fields, we need a gateway test. The certifications serve as a way for individuals to independently show their skills meet the minimum standards through testing."
When students ''" or anyone interested in a career in computer forensics ask if they should get certified or a degree, I think the answer, for most folks, is yes. There are always exceptions to the rule, but not only does a "gateway test" serve as a bar that must be reached for the profession, it is often times a huge confidence boost for the individual who is trying to get a foot in the door. While I fully expect demand for computer forensics specialists to remain very high relative to other criminal justice disciplines, the fact is that competition is fierce right now for everything, so having a degree/certification, some real experience to draw from, and a shot of confidence to go along with it, may be the difference between getting the job and not getting the job.

Posted April 30, 2012 at 4:58 AM | Permalink | Reply


Great post, just what I was looking for. I've been going back and forth over the past few years since losing a creative job, wondering how I can move my career forward. Years ago I thought about going into information security or forensics but had no idea where to start. For almost a year I've been working in web development and SEO, but haven't learned anything advanced enough to get a great job doing it or to make great money. Now, I'm thinking about stepping back again and following that path from the beginning. I have somewhat of an IT background, though I'm not necessarily a programmer and definitely not a networking expert, so I thought forensics may be a good area to try and focus on. Either way, very helpful stuff and good to think about things before an interview.

Posted May 16, 2012 at 11:56 AM | Permalink | Reply


Great insight Greg. Thank You

Posted July 17, 2012 at 9:15 PM | Permalink | Reply

andrew garcia

hi guys,i wanted to begin a career in computer forensics but i dont know what schools to go to,i know devry university offers a degree for computer forensics but i heard its a rip off,do an of you know what the best way to pursue a career in computer forensics is? thank you :)

Posted November 30, 2012 at 3:57 PM | Permalink | Reply

Alistair EWing

Good post, I will forward this to people looking at career options in digital forensics.

Posted September 12, 2013 at 2:38 PM | Permalink | Reply


Hi Adam, did you ever get any recommendations on what schools offer conputer forensics?

Posted October 22, 2013 at 1:21 AM | Permalink | Reply

Michelle O.

If you are in New York City, go to John Jay. It's famous in the law enforcement field.

Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:20 PM | Permalink | Reply


This was insightful, but I have a problem with this statement here:
Science is usually based on that for each science that certain rules will exist that do not change over time. DNA can help match identity. Gravity will not change. Water molecules can be a liquid, solid, or a gas. None of these sciences change on a yearly or even daily basis.
This prima facie interpretation of the sciences leads me to believe that the author possesses only a sophomoric understanding of the practice. The practice of science is always changing, but it is what science observes which does not. The same could be said in computer forensics, ultimately one is attempting to achieve useable data (that will not change), but how to achieve said data can and will change.
To the question about obtaining a degree, look at your local community colleges first. Most have programs that will lead you into a Bachelors degree from a state or private institution. Also as a bonus, they do not exist as a ''for-profit' institution so your fees will be much less than if you where to go to the ''Devry'/'Phenoix'/'ITTech' of the industry. These for profit entities are really taking advantage of federal funding/aid and are pulling in to much money from ill informed but hard working people. The quality does not reflect the price you will spend from ''for-profit' institutions, if you do want to spend that type of cash you are better off applying to attend Carnegie Mellon, MIT or Harvard in my opinion.

Posted January 22, 2013 at 12:19 AM | Permalink | Reply

Brandon McClintick

Hi i am currently in the army my job is communications and i am also going to Devry university online for digital forensics. My question is? once i get my degree and get out of the army will i be able to get a job in digital forensics? Is the job market for digital forensics really that big?

Posted September 9, 2013 at 4:30 AM | Permalink | Reply


@Brandon: While every candidate is different and it's hard to judge without knowing your qualifications, there is a HUGE demand for computer forensics experts. With an increase in cyber and digital crimes, the demand for the e-discovery analysis is only rising. At Elijah we specialize in this

Posted July 18, 2014 at 5:24 AM | Permalink | Reply


This is really a nice article to get to know about digital forensics in brief. May I know what are the best institutes to join in India to learn digital forensics?

Posted July 30, 2014 at 11:35 PM | Permalink | Reply


Thanks, It is really good post, Just have quick question, Where to start my first career? I have my network security engineer role experience but its really hard to get into Forensic role. do i have to start from analyst role? or incident role?