Behind the scenes: Course teaches basics of digital forensics field
September 10, 2013
Marcos Jimenez could say that he got to go deep behind the scenes of popular TV crime shows last month when he took a cyber security course, since the glammed-up shots of TV investigators digging through cell phones, computers and other devices have real-life roots in the digital forensics field.
Jimenez, a staff sergeant with the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., joined other Soldiers in a free week-long course in digital forensics Aug. 19-23 at Camp Murray, Wash. In a nutshell, digital forensics focuses on preserving data to be used in investigations, said Kendall Blaylock, an instructor for the course and a research associate with Mississippi State University.
"Every bit and byte of information that's stored in a computer and a storage device is critical to the investigation. Every little bit of information can help them, an investigator, put somebody behind bars," said Jimenez, who also learned through the course how to recover data that may have been deleted or lost.
Most crimes these days involve some type of cybercrime committed via phone, camera, copier machine, social media, or other devices. However, the cyber security field, which includes digital forensics, is 200-300 percent understaffed, according to Morgan Zantua with the University of Washington; it is also one of the fastest-growing fields today.
Contrary to the stereotypes, though, "you don't have to be a computer geek or techie to go into cyber security," said Zantua.
Getting people exposed to the field was part of the reason the National Forensics Training Center, Mississippi State University, the Center for Information Assurance Cybersecurity, and the University of Washington joined together to sponsor the third annual free course offered in the region. Students in the course earned certificates of completion, which help with education hours and serve as an introduction into the field, said Blaylock.
Jimenez said he's always been interested in electronics, and he wanted to take advantage of a course that may help in his next career. With nearly 20 years in the military, he's proactively preparing for a second career with a federal agency such as the Department of State, Department of Security, or the FBI.
"If I sit back and wait for something to happen, it's probably not going to happen," said Jimenez. He's taken that philosophy to heart the last few years. Although he was severely injured by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in March 2012, Jimenez completed his associate's degree last year and earned his bachelor's degree this May, taking classes while recovering between surgeries.
"It's a commitment I made to myself. On the outside, competition is tough. You've got to be competitive," said Jimenez.
Although he's currently working on a master's degree in organizational leadership, Jimenez also opted to take the digital forensics course to get familiar with the basics of the field, in case it's applicable to a future job in a field such as the FBI.
He said he's keeping his options open -- a goal that fits in with the digital forensics field overall since it offers a depth of positions in a variety of different areas. According to Zantua, there are different levels of digital forensics positions such as first responders who capture the data, investigators who look into the data and make electronic copies of it, and examiners who do the deep work with data, put all of the pieces together, write reports and testify.
While law enforcement agencies, including within the federal government, use digital forensics experts, corporations also hire them to protect their interests; in addition, some digital forensics experts opt to serve as private consultants for small businesses and others.
Blaylock said that those with military backgrounds already "have a leg up" in digital forensics since many are already familiar with law enforcement. While he hopes to offer the course here again in 2014, he said that anyone interested in learning more about digital forensics can also look at Mississippi State University's website, where they are creating online course materials and training videos in the field.