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From: InfoSec News (alertsinfosecnews.org)
Date: Mon Oct 15 2007 - 01:28:00 CDT
By BARBARA WHITAKER
October 14, 2007
AFTER 31 years of eluding the police, the B.T.K. serial killer of
Wichita, Kan., was tracked down and convicted in 2005 with the help of
information left behind on a computer floppy disk. Scott Peterson’s
conviction for murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, relied in part on his
Internet research about the tides and water currents in the area where
her body later turned up.
From prominent murder cases to lowly divorce proceedings, the e-mail
messages that people send and the Web sites they view can and will be
used in court. The people who unearth this data and make it usable in
the courtroom are known as computer forensic specialists. They are the
cyberdetectives who mine the data that seems to disappear from — but
never really leaves — computers and other electronic storage devices.
“People who love computers, who love crime scene investigation, see this
as a natural confluence of their skills without having to reach under a
dead body,” said Craig D. Ball of Austin, Tex., a former trial lawyer
who advises judges and lawyers on the use of electronic evidence.
Computer forensic specialists examine hard drives and other storage
areas, ferreting out information from things like spreadsheets, Word
documents, instant messages and e-mail. They look for signs of tampering
and for information that users may have tried to delete or hide.
For many years, the field was dominated by law enforcement agencies and
their employees. But it has expanded recently as consultants have
entered the field and as various government agencies, corporations,
financial institutions and other businesses have begun hiring their own
The work can be both rewarding and tedious. It can take weeks or months
to sort through a multitude of files and other digital data, some of
which can be encrypted. Computer forensic specialists must also be able
to retrieve and store it in a way that does not destroy or change other
data on the computer.
Mr. Ball noted that 30 years ago, when offices did not have personal
computers, there was an actual paper trail to follow, with the help of
file clerks and file rooms. “As we migrated to electronic communication
and information creation, we empowered individuals to create their own
information,” he said. “We also empowered them to hide it or seek to
destroy or alter it, and you no longer had the pristine copy in the file
room or the missing page in the management system.”
As demand for computer forensic employees has grown, formal education
programs have emerged, along with a plethora of certifications and a
handful of professional associations.
Professionals in the field estimate that the average salary for computer
forensic specialists is about $85,000, depending on experience and
location. Entry-level positions can start at around $50,000 a year.
Kris E. Turnbull, director of the Cyber Crime Institute, a continuing
education program at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, said his
students tended to be 30 to 50 years old, with a background in Internet
technology. Some had jobs that were eliminated at corporations, he said.
The institute, started in 2002, offers online programs that can take
about three to four months to complete. Students who graduate from the
institute receive a certification backed by the International Society
for Forensic Computer Examiners.
Michael Kirk, 28, who graduated in 2006 from Champlain College in
Burlington, Vt., with a degree in computer forensics, said he sought a
bachelor’s degree in the field because an associate degree was not
getting him a job.
In addition, “Experience is paramount,” he said, noting that he did an
internship with a computer forensics software company while getting his
bachelor’s. Many educators say internships are vital in helping students
land jobs after graduation.
“There are plenty of computer forensic jobs,” he said. “But a lot
require previous experience as well as certification in various tools.”
The number of possible certifications is extensive, and they can be
time-consuming and cost hundreds of dollars to obtain.
Some certifications are related to knowledge of software like EnCase and
AccessData, which are used to mine computers for information. Others
come from professional organizations like the International Society of
Forensic Computer Examiners, which is affiliated with a private Virginia
company, Key Computer Services, and the High Tech Crime Network, a group
of law enforcement agencies and corporate security professionals. While
some companies require certain certifications, others don’t.
Mr. Kirk, now an evidence consultant at FTI, a consulting firm that
specializes in investigations and litigation, said the work was
interesting and rewarding. But he said that people contemplating a
career in the field should be open to relocating.
“It hasn’t quite caught on everywhere,” he said, noting that he moved
from central New York State to Washington for his position and travels
often. “There are a lot of things to consider with the jobs that are out
there. You’ve just got to be willing to make some sacrifices to obtain
the job you want.”
Fresh Starts is a monthly column about emerging jobs and job trends.
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