Computer science isn’t just about being hunched over a keyboard with a pocket protector in your striped, button-down shirt. Computer science is relevant in many aspects of forensic science. In addition to computer forensics itself, where a person investigates the use of computers, forensic technicians use computers to accomplish all kinds of tasks.
You may have heard of the field of computer forensics, but you may be unsure if you can get a job in forensics with a computer science degree. There’s actually quite a bit to know about forensics as it has to do with evidence retrieval from computers and other electronic media, and a degree in computer science provides a graduate with a versatile skills and knowledge in computer use. The two are very much related.
About Computer Forensics
Computer forensics, also known as computer forensic science, falls under the broader field of digital forensic science. Computer forensics includes digital investigations, data retrieval, and other evidence collection techniques. This applies to both computers and other electronic media. When someone has a degree in computer science, such evidence retrieval is, as they say, right in that person’s “wheelhouse.” Computer science and forensics are quite related.
Forensic techniques are used to examine an electronic device such as a computer and determine its content, as well as it method of use. The storage mechanisms, like drives and memory, as well as the electronic documents, such as email and JPEGS, are examined. Information is retrieved and events are traced, putting together timelines and situational recreations.
An examiner uses forensic techniques to search through electronics devices, such as computers, tablets, phones, and servers, to determine if any illicit material exists or if the device in question has seen illicit use. By determining if the device’s memory or storage contains this kind of illicit material, the examiner can build timelines and simulations to recreate events.
How to Get a Job in Computer Forensics
Computer forensic specialists must be well-versed in programming, encryption, networking, and other aspects of computer science. They must be able to use the data evidence they discover to bolster cases in both civil and criminal court. The computer science degree gives the forensic investigator the requisite skills and develops the correct thought processes necessary for the job.
The degree required to secure forensic jobs varies by the responsibilities of that jog. Some entry-level positions require only an associate degree. Others might require a bachelor’s degree, and still others might require a graduate degree, particularly if the job involves computer engineering. Upper-level jobs, especially government jobs, could also require teaching experience.
The kinds of coursework you can expect to take while pursuing a computer science or other degree to become a computer forensic specialist are varied. There will be classes in computer programming, networking and databases. You will also need to become familiar with surveillance methods. These kinds of courses will focus on ways to track patterns in hacking, determine criminal activity and recover digital information. Courses in liberal studies like science, math and English are also required and relevant to the job.
The Other Side of Forensics Using Computers
Not every job that uses computers in the field of forensics involves actual computer forensics. Many investigators use computers when they examine other aspects of a crime. These can range from simple criminal record lookups to complicated DNA analysis of multiple blood samples in a crime scene.
Criminal Background Checks and Record Lookups
Say that there is a suspect with a common name like Joseph Jones. In a large city like New York or Los Angeles, there might be dozens, if not hundreds, of men named Joseph Jones. Computers collate all the data about previous offenders. These databases contain photographs, lists of known associates, lists of previous offenses, and other data that might be found in a suspect’s dossier.
To avoid having to question so many people, investigators will search by known associates or photograph. In the past, this could have taken a team of investigators weeks to pore through. Now, a computer-savvy investigator can find the information in seconds and pass it on to the correct officers.
The same applies if someone who is unknown to the police of a certain city becomes a suspect. Instead of phoning the police in another city and waiting for things to be delivered through the mail or through a fax, an investigator merely has to log into the various national databases to do a background check on the suspect. Even if no criminality is involved, the police do background checks for the general public all the time. People who work in the financial world or with children routinely do background checks, and someone knowledgeable in computers can do that for them.
In the lab, forensic investigators analyze collected evidence for a relationship to items at various crime scenes. They would use microscopes to take photos of carpet fibers, for example, and then use a computer to search for brands of carpet than contain a match for the weave, fiber material, and age of the sample.
These investigators might also examine lists of assorted poisons to match the substance used in a homicide with a known plant or chemical. They would use advanced machines, such as the Phenom Desktop SEM to test for gunshot residue and high-resolution, 3-D imagery for facial recognition.
Sometimes, they would have to recreate chemical compounds found at crime scenes. These compounds might be found on suspects’ clothing or personal items. If the investigators can match the compounds, then they can show that the suspect was at the crime scene at some time in the past.
The same holds true for fingerprint searches, DNA searches, and other searches that require access to a national database. Nearly 40 years ago, The Night Stalker terrorized Los Angeles and San Francisco. Had the investigators been able to access the data from Richard Ramirez’s crimes in such a national database, he might have been caught far sooner than nearly six months.
Sometimes, computers cannot enhance evidence using normal procedures. One example would be needing to identify a murder victim’s tattoo and not being able to because of the decomposition of the underlying tissues. That’s where alternative-light photography comes into play. Instead of relying on natural light, the alternative-light photographer would use infrared light so that the specially designed camera could capture the full tattoo that was indiscernible in natural light.
In other cases, ultraviolet light is the key to unlocking a forensic puzzle. Using a variety of colored filters, the investigator can see different kinds of trace evidence on a victim’s body. This could include the depth of possible bite marks, the mapping of bruises that are separate from lividity, and the finding of small particles, such as pollen, that might not appear in natural light.
Once the investigator has the photos, that person would use a computer to enhance and analyze the images and other data so that that person could come to a conclusion about the evidence in question. Straight photography wouldn’t enhance the images enough to be useful, and without the computer to collate the data, the investigator would be stuck. Having the computer science training would certainly be an asset.
In a world where computers and advanced techniques are making it ever more difficult for crooks to get away with things, the crooks have become creative. They hide their illicit dealings on the hard drives of their gaming systems, such as Xbox or PlayStation. Investigators could pore over their computers as much as they liked and would find nothing. Having the right computer and the right training both give the investigator the right tools to delve into a criminal’s game system to find the incriminating data. This applies even if the items are encrypted.
Perhaps the most sophisticated computer application of all is link analysis software. It’s not super-technical like gas chromatography, DNA analysis, or processing alternative light sources. Rather, it’s far-reaching and comprehensive and relies on complex algorithms to find patterns where none are apparent. These patterns could be between kinds of rocks at different crime scenes, species of lizards found near multiple victims, or even people who prefer to eat at roadside diners next to gas stations.
The links could come from anywhere, and the powerful software the computer-savvy investigator uses catalogs and processes terabytes of information relatively quickly and accurately. Link analysis also creates a bridge between computer science, data analytics, and forensic accounting. One of its crucial uses is to track “creative accounting” like money laundering, manipulating receivables to inflate a business’s health, or even hiding debts from possible investors.
Although many “creative accounting” techniques are not illegal in and of themselves, using them to defraud someone is illegal. That’s why forensic investigators trained and educated in computer science are so important to the field.
Whereas link analysis is the broadest and most complex application of computer power in the world of forensics,lLaser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry is undoubtedly the most specialized. LA-ICP-MA is brought to bear on cryptic solid samples of material found at crime scenes. The investigator uses the laser to ablate tiny particles off of the solid objects for easier computer-based analysis. The process and the computers that aid it are so exacting that they can measure down to a single part per billion. Such power would have been merely a pipe dream even as few as five years ago.
As the technology has progressed, so has the education. Carnegie Mellon University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University lead the national rankings in U.S. News and World Report. The University of California-Berkeley and the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign are close behind. These schools offer all levels of computer science degrees, and students can take advantage of all the “latest and greatest” at any one of them.
Computer scientists can become forensic investigators because their knowledge and skills are in demand. They can do the minute drudgery necessary to close many cases that would have gone unsolved in the past. Some police officers are going back to school to earn computer science degrees to be able to do some of this work themselves. In 2015, fewer than a third of police officers had a four-year degree. Only half had a two-year degree, and only one in 20 had a graduate degree.
In the intervening six years, the technology has grown at an astronomical pace. Officers who don’t educate themselves at least on the bare minimum regarding all of the new techniques do a disservice not only to themselves but also to the public. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to pursue a career in forensics with a computer science degree even if it’s not computer forensics.
As you can see, computer forensics is a broad and interesting field. And, yes, you can get a job in forensics with a computer science degree.
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