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For immediate release — Nov. 17, 2015
(DALLAS) — In the good 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. In today’s digital world, however, that task now requires people who have digital forensics skills, in addition to a knack for “creative problem solving.”
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.
Jason Alvarado, lead faculty member for the digital forensics program at Richland College, said every organization and corporation 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 information security is the hottest industry in the digital world, and digital forensics graduates can plug their skills into that area to land a lucrative job in the business.
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 added that “digital forensics experts will max out at $160,000 to $180,000.” He said, “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. They’re hiring an expert witness who happens to know digital forensics,” he said.
Paula Viall, a digital forensics student at Richland, was laid off from three different accounting jobs over a 10-year span. The last accounting job she had was shipped overseas, so she took advantage of a government retraining program and looked into digital forensics. “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.
Alvarado said digital forensics is a good fit for people who like solving puzzles and who like to approach problems sideways. “We’re not looking necessarily for a technical person. 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.”
Viall added, “One of the things that I was told when I got here was not to worry about not having the IT background. In fact, having an IT background could hinder me with a mindset of ‘this is how things are done.’”
Melissa Sokolowski graduated from Richland in 2012 and 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.
“It’s very challenging and rewarding at the same time. 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. Sokolowski 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.
Sokolowski said that the industry changes rapidly, but she 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.
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. They complete a task and move on to the next one, but they are very organized in the way they approach their day,” he added.
Viall said, “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 slightly different digital forensics career path is available through training 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 and investigations certificate at his 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,” he explained.
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 exits for private investigators, Patterson added, because “people are always willing to pay someone else to do the snooping for them.”
In addition, banks always are looking for personnel to staff their fraud departments, Patterson said. “What we found out is that most people who work at banks don’t have higher education degrees because they don’t need them, unless they want to move into executive positions. The certificate is perfect because they can transfer to the fraud department with it. It’s very useful in that marketplace,” he explained.
Alvarado said the case of Casey Anthony, who was charged with the murder of her child, Caylee, is a good example of how digital forensics helps in criminal cases. Alvarado said 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. “The case didn’t work out, but it showed how we put computer evidence with other types of physical evidence,” he added.
Joseph Barsis, a first-year student in Eastfield’s criminal justice program, is taking the digital forensics and investigations course. Barsis said he has a knack for working with computers, and his step-grandfather was a police officer. As a result, he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement.
Barsis, who hopes to earn a doctorate, said he finds that the classes are very helpful. “The way they put the subject into context using real-life cases is amazing,” he added.
Alvarado said Richland has multiple articulation agreements for the digital forensics program with other schools, 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.
For more information about the digital forensics program at Richland College, email Jason Alvarado at
JAlvarado@dcccd.edu. To contact Patrick Patterson at Eastfield College, please email him at
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