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digital devices

What is computer forensics?

As legend has it, when a reporter asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks, he replied, That’s where the money is.

The word ALERT in capital letters set in red against a computer screenToday, the money has been moved to the Internet, where a new generation of criminals is now wreaking havoc. There were more attacks in 2019 than in the five years prior, according to Accenture. Cyber thieves have been stealing credit card numbers, hacking into bank accounts and selling personal data in ever-greater numbers, with a 67% increase in 2019.

Cybersecurity is responsible for building digital walls to stop these breaches. But sometimes the hackers still break through, and that’s where computer forensics experts step in to find out what happened, how it happened, and who did it. These experts often start and launch their careers with computer science degrees.

“People often imagine most computer science graduates get jobs as programmers,” said John Hale, chair of The University of Tulsa’s Tandy School of Computer Science. “A lot of them do. But as technology pervades every aspect of our lives, criminals have followed – even gotten ahead in some cases. To stop them, law enforcement agencies need tech experts who understand the innermost workings of digital devices and computer networks.”

At TU, which offers a minor in cyber security, you’ll be thoroughly trained in coding, computer networks and advanced mathematics – the three disciplines that form the foundation of computer science. You’ll also be able to take courses covering topics such as network security, e-commerce and system administration.

If you want a career in computer forensics, you’ll need to understand how computers store data, in order to sift through terabytes of information to find evidence of wrongdoing. And you’ll also need to know how computer networks are built, so you can retrace hackers’ steps and see where they got in.

A decade or two ago, computer forensics was often limited to examining a suspect’s hard drive for documents. Today, with the rise of cloud computing and the proliferation of digital devices, investigators may find themselves needing to examine text messages on multiple phones, crack encrypted files on flash drives and gain access to data on remote servers. Identifying evidence online can be painstaking work, but TU-educated professionals come prepared with essential skills in computer science.

Before any investigation can start, analysts need to make sure the network is secure by purging any malware, most of which sends information back to hackers. Then, investigators sift through log files to find where a breach may have occurred. Often, hackers leave red herrings to cover their tracks — they may delete files as they go, insert code that appears to blame others or leave digital fingerprints that appear to originate thousands of miles from where they may really be located.

At the same time, computer forensics experts also need a thorough grounding in criminal justice techniques, such as how to collect evidence, maintain a chain of custody and testify in court.

These skills are hard to find, and it shows. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of jobs for information security analysts is expected to grow by 31% through 2029. That’s very fast. And the pay reflects the shortage: median salaries in the field are $103,590 a year.

Pursue a career in cybersecurity at The University of Tulsa

With a TU computer science degree or a minor in cyber security, you can launch a career in computer forensics. TU grads have gone on to work for institutions such as the National Security Agency, the FBI, Department of Defense, Department of Justice and Department of Energy.