When you have a difficult question, it’s always best to turn to a subject matter expert for answers. In our blog series, Ask an Expert, National University faculty take turns answering challenging questions in their areas of expertise.
In this post, we asked Brian Scavotto, a computer forensics expert, consultant, and instructor at National University’s School of Engineering and Computing to share a few insights.
Why Is Computer Forensics Important?
According to Scavotto, the answer to why is computer forensics important lies in the ubiquity of technology in our daily lives. “It isn’t only that computer forensics is important,” Scavotto says, “it’s that technology touches just about everything already and computer forensics is rapidly becoming a daily part of the investigative process. From a law enforcement perspective, it is difficult to find a case today that does not have a nexus to computer technology.” For example, evidence of crime can be tied to a cell phone or laptop, sent through email, posted on social media, or be something stored in the cloud or on a Dropbox account.
Even as recently as twenty years ago, very few investigative cases involved a cyber connection. Today, the increase in the use of mobile devices has also complicated investigations and signaled a change in how evidence is collected. Scavotto says, “We’ve seen the shift from law enforcement being 90-95 percent traditional computer forensics cases and very few mobile cases to now being 90-95 percent mobile pieces of evidence and a lot fewer computers.”
He continues, “From the personal or commercial aspect of technology, computer forensics is important because we’re heading into an ‘internet of things’ world; everything is going to be connected all the time.” For instance, the Echo, Siri, and Portal digital assistants, along with web connected refrigerators and other home appliances are in more and more homes with internet connectivity and microphones. Scavotto says, “We’re heading into an era where absolutely everything will need to be examined.”
What Skills Are Critical for Forensic Analysts?
To work in computer forensic analysis, having knowledge and skills in computer technology and software programming is beneficial, but so is having a natural curiosity for figuring out puzzles and solving problems. Scavotto mentions that having the drive to stay up-to-date on technology is also important. He says, “You have to do a lot of reading, a lot of self-driven research to find ways to stay aware of and a little ahead of the new stuff coming out.”
Communication skills rank high as a skill for a computer forensic analyst as you need to be able to speak to executives in companies and even everyday people in a courtroom, and describe complex topics to an audience that may have no idea what you’re talking about.
Security analysts, those who work in an operations center, are doing more forensics work each day. They look at packet captures (intercepting a data packet that is traveling over a computer network) and investigate questionable items, such as a suspicious PDF attachment sent through email — both forensics activities. Scavotto says, “If you’re going to start ripping apart a Microsoft Word document or a PDF file, you’re doing forensics. It’s those types of things I think that will be the huge growth areas. I think most forensic analysts and incident responders are investigators at heart. Their curiosity drives their ability to go through amazing amounts of data to find the golden nugget that they are looking for.”
Where Do Computer Forensics Specialists Work?
Computer forensic analysts can be found in any organization that relies on computer technology — which means pretty much everywhere in business, industry, and government.
Scavotto says, “It’s very expensive for law enforcement agencies to spin up a forensics team, train officers to do this sort of work, and buy the necessary equipment to be successful.” So although he doesn’t see law enforcement as a high growth area, he notes that some law enforcement agencies are starting to hire civilians to handle cases involving computer forensics.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Outlook Handbook (OOH), between 2016 and 2026, jobs for information security analysts are projected to grow 28 percent, much faster than average for other occupations. Demand for these professionals will remain high at computer companies, consulting firms, and business and financial companies. General responsibilities for this position include planning and implementing security measures to protect computer networks and systems from cyberattacks. In 2017, the median annual pay for information security analysts was was $95,510 nationally and $108,090 in California. Information security analysts who focus on computer systems design, have an anticipated job growth of of 56 percent for this same time period, due to small and midsized companies moving services to the cloud and an overall increase in cybersecurity threats.
Another growing field is for professionals who design computer programs. For 2016-2026, the Bureau of Labor Statistics OOH projects jobs for system software developers to increase by 24 percent, much faster than average for other occupations. In 2017, the median annual pay nationally for these professionals was $107,600 with the California annual average salary at $127,230.Top employers include manufacturing, engineering services, finance and insurance, software publishers, and computer systems design and related services.
Computer systems analysts, also known as computer systems architects, will also be in demand with the BLS projecting a job growth rate of 9 percent between 2016 and 2026. According to BLS statistics, in 2017, the annual median salary for computer systems analysts was $88,270 nationally and $102,860 in California. Increased use of cloud computing and IT services in healthcare will continue to fuel demand for this role.
Studying Computer Forensics at National University
If you have a natural inclination and interest in computers, an investigative nature when it comes to technology and are wondering how to study computer science, National University offers both undergraduate and graduate on-campus and online degrees in computer science.
The Master of Science in Computer Science is designed to teach you fundamental knowledge and best practices in areas such as software engineering, database theory and design, cloud computing, and computer and mobile forensics. The courses focus on helping you build skills by working on real-world problems.
Both the on-campus and online degree programs have a strong emphasis on communication skills so you’ll develop the ability to discuss computer-related issues verbally and in writing to technical and non-technical people. You can learn more about National University’s Master of Science in Computer Science on our program page. New classes start monthly and you can enroll at any time.
About Our Computer Forensics Expert
Brian Scavotto started out in law enforcement as a police officer on the streets in Florida. Always good with computers, he quickly became the unofficial office IT guy; whenever someone had a computer issue they turned to Scavotto. The skillset isn’t common for an officer with a street beat, so his electronic talents were noticed and he found himself moved into a cybercrime investigation squad. Scavotto learned a lot while working on a national task force and through teaching himself all he could about computer forensics, computer crimes, and hacker methodologies. He left law enforcement for the federal government and built on his growing forensics experience through cases with the FBI and CIA. After some time heading up the Cyber Threat Intelligence Team at Fannie Mae, Scavotto moved to the commercial sector and now focuses his forensics skills on threat detection and incident response. He also teaches computer and mobile forensics to share his passion and expertise with future professionals. Scavotto developed and teaches the mobile forensics course at National University.