Computer forensics applies scientific methods to recover stored data as evidence in legal and criminal cases. An online computer forensics master’s degree provides the technical training and tools required for a broad range of careers in government, law enforcement, financial services, and security firms. As dependence on information technology spreads, organizations rely on these specialists to manage their computer systems and monitor hardware and software vulnerabilities.
This guide compares the rankings for the best accredited online computer forensics master’s programs. It includes information about career possibilities, expected job growth, and salary potential.
Students entering an online computer forensics master’s program usually have earned their bachelor’s degree in computer science, criminal justice, or a natural science major. Some master’s programs prefer applicants with backgrounds in computer programming, operating systems, or networks. Master’s level coursework focuses on the collection and analysis of digital evidence using current technologies. Full-time students generally complete their master’s degree in about two years. Both on-campus and online programs generally require 30-40 credits. Most programs require a master’s thesis, a capstone research project, or an internship.
Many programs include criminal justice courses that address issues such as cybercrime and privacy laws. Students can choose a specialization or select electives that match their research and career interests.
While every online computer forensics master’s degree has its own curriculum, most programs follow a similar structure. Students complete a set of core foundational courses, followed by electives and specialized courses. Here are some typical course offerings:
This introductory course for first year master’s students explores various methods of data storage, processing, and protections, including cryptology and encryption, authentication protocols, certificate authorities, and privacy protections. Topics include network analysis, routing protocols, and software and hardware risks. Coursework addresses the complex nature of data confidentiality, integrity, and access, as well as security protocols.
Students gain proficiency in the tools and technologies used in computer forensic examinations. Students learn best practices and procedures for securing and validating evidence, including digital media and physical memory, and recovering artifacts. Students also learn appropriate protocols for analyzing, reporting, and presenting results for criminal and civil cases.
This course examines the design and behavior of operating systems with an emphasis on how these systems determine the type of information available. Students learn how to recover information at the binary level. Topics also include the features and limitations of current forensic software tools and the techniques by which the automated tools interpret data.
Students learn encryption and hashing algorithm techniques, including the relationship of algorithm complexity to password strength and password cracking tools. The course covers methods to counter whole-disk encryption, memory, and network-based encryption; the use of encryption in Malware applications; and techniques used to hide data.
Students learn to navigate investigations and conduct digital crime research. The course introduces students to digital crimes, bitcoin, and the internet of things. Students explore the ways government, industry, and law enforcement agencies respond to cyber threats, and also learn the major federal laws that control cybercrime and criminal procedure.
The types of electives offered will vary by school, but students generally choose electives that provide them with specialized knowledge that relates to their career interests. Here are some examples:
This course teaches students to preserve and analyze data on mobile devices. Students learn how to use software synchronization and forensic software applications, as well as how to apply and evaluate different methods of data preservation, including removal and download of data from silicon chips.
This course explores several types of malware. Students learn methods of malware analysis and their respective strengths and weaknesses. They will also examine methods of behavioral analysis using controlled environments and reverse engineering. The course emphasizes malware behavior, including infection vectors, propagation, and persistence mechanisms and artifacts.
Students learn how to collect and interpret information from network traffic, devices, servers, and operating systems.
Most online computer forensics master’s degrees require either a capstone, thesis, or internship. The capstone may consist of a research project or case study that integrates coursework with a practical application. A thesis typically requires independent research under the supervision of a faculty committee. Some master’s programs give academic credit for internships, providing students with hands-on experience working alongside computer forensics professionals.
Students should consider several factors when choosing an online digital forensics master’s program. Most importantly, make sure each school has received regional or national accreditation. The best online computer forensics master’s degrees have been awarded the programmatic accreditation designation by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. Other key indicators of program quality include graduation rates, faculty reputation, and the types of specializations and electives offered.
Pay attention to tuition rates, distance learning fees, and on-campus residency requirements. Online programs use different course delivery formats. Does your intended program use asynchronously delivered courses that provide the flexibility to study at your own pace? Or does it group beginning students into a cohort, taking synchronously formatted classes together at fixed times each term? How long does the program take, and does it accommodate part-time enrollment?
Interest in computer forensics has exploded due to the increasing and widely publicized occurrences of security breaches, hacking attempts, and cybercrimes. As a result, law enforcement and government agencies have expanded their reliance on skilled technicians to recover and analyze digital evidence for criminal investigations. Dependence on information technology by various industries and organizations also drives the demand for forensic professionals to monitor and protect networks and data storage systems. While a master’s degree does not guarantee employment, job seekers who possess a master’s in computer forensics can expect greater career prospects and opportunities for advancement.
Information security analysts plan and carry out security measures. They develop and monitor cybersecurity to protect networks and systems from external attacks. They monitor external threats, investigate breaches and hacking attempts, assess damage, and implement solutions. These professionals must be familiar with software like firewalls and data encryption programs and keep up with the latest technology and developments in the field. A master’s degree with training in computer forensics or information systems provides a competitive advantage for these positions.
These professionals collect and analyze evidence for criminal investigations in the field and in laboratory settings. Crime scene technicians determine what evidence should be collected and how to handle it. They catalog and preserve evidence for transfer to crime labs for further analysis. Technicians based in crime labs perform chemical, biological, microscopic, and data analysis on evidence recovered at crime scenes, reporting findings to investigators. Many forensic science technicians have a background in natural science in addition to a master’s degree.
Computer and information systems managers oversee the maintenance and protection of an organization’s computer network and data storage systems. They continuously monitor external breaches and educate all employees about security threats. If a security violation occurs, they develop a strategy to repair the breach and ensure it will not reoccur. Increasingly, many employers require these managers to hold a master’s degree with strong skills in information technology.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
An online computer forensics master’s degree can lead to promising career opportunities and attractive salary potential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects an overall increase in the demand for computer forensics specialists and administrators throughout the coming decade. The job growth rates shown above remain well above the national average for all U.S. occupations.
Professional associations that represent computer forensic practitioners and researchers provide continuing education, advanced credential training, and information on new developments. Membership provides graduate students with networking opportunities, professional development, and career resources.
AAFS promotes the incorporation of forensic sciences into the criminal justice system. Its membership includes practitioners and researchers from every branch of forensic sciences who share an interest in collaborating to improve education and professional standards.
Formed in 1990, IACIS offers training and certification programs. Its members are federal, state, and municipal law enforcement professionals and computer forensic professionals from more than 60 countries.
The ISSA advocates on behalf of information systems professionals and promotes best practices for the management of information resources. The ISSA draws its members from a broad range of organizations, including financial services, manufacturing, communications, government, healthcare, and education.
Established in 1989, this cooperative research and educational organization specializes in information security training and cybersecurity certifications. It maintains an archive of free research documents in information security and maintains the Internet Storm Center warning system.
DFA provides educational opportunities for local chapters. They develop online curricula and pair new practitioners with professional mentors.
An online master’s in computer forensics is a sizeable investment. Graduate students can apply for scholarships, grants, assistantships, and other forms of student aid. Grants and scholarships, unlike federal or private loans, do not require repayment. Many graduate programs offer fellowships and work study grants to help defray tuition costs.
All students should submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), regardless of their personal financial circumstances. The FAFSA determines eligibility for all types of federal aid, including low-interest direct unsubsidized loans and direct PLUS loans.
The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners funds scholarships of up to $10,000 to students entering a graduate program in information security, computer forensics, or a related field with the intention of pursuing a career in fraud examination and investigation.
AFCEA sponsors scholarships worth $5,000 to undergraduate and graduate students pursuing degrees at an accredited postsecondary institution related to the support of U.S. cybersecurity enterprises. Students may enter programs in cybersecurity, information science, information technology, computer science, digital forensics, and electronic engineering. Applicants must demonstrate academic excellence, leadership, and financial need.