On the Trail of Digital Secrets

On the Trail of Digital Secrets
On the Trail of Digital Secrets

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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=E2=80=99s 
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 =E2=80=94 but 
never really leaves =E2=80=94 computers and other electronic storage devices.

=E2=80=9CPeople 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,=E2=80=9D 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. =E2=80=9CAs we migrated to electronic communication 
and information creation, we empowered individuals to create their own 
information,=E2=80=9D he said. =E2=80=9CWe 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.=E2=80=9D

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=E2=80=99s degree in the field because an associate degree was not 
getting him a job.

In addition, =E2=80=9CExperience is paramount,=E2=80=9D he said, noting that he did an 
internship with a computer forensics software company while getting his 
bachelor=E2=80=99s. Many educators say internships are vital in helping students 
land jobs after graduation.

=E2=80=9CThere are plenty of computer forensic jobs,=E2=80=9D he said. =E2=80=9CBut a lot 
require previous experience as well as certification in various tools.=E2=80=9D

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=E2=80=99t.

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.

=E2=80=9CIt hasn=E2=80=99t quite caught on everywhere,=E2=80=9D he said, noting that he moved 
from central New York State to Washington for his position and travels 
often. =E2=80=9CThere are a lot of things to consider with the jobs that are out 
there. You=E2=80=99ve just got to be willing to make some sacrifices to obtain 
the job you want.=E2=80=9D

Fresh Starts is a monthly column about emerging jobs and job trends.

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