Investigating Crime with Computer Forensics
When Pam King goes to work in the morning, she gets her coffee and sits down in front of her computer, as many workers do. But King doesn’t log on to juggle spreadsheets or prepare PowerPoint presentations. She’s more likely to be using specialized software to investigate an illegal intrusion into a client’s network, hunting down deleted e-mail that contains sensitive information or going deep inside a server to find the “smoking gun” evidence that an employee stole proprietary information from their employer.
She is an expert in the fast-growing field of computer forensics, a kind of digital detective who helps clients gather and cull data about their computer networks and electronic files, provides tools for firms to monitor their own servers and databases and helps businesses in all aspects of e-discovery—the art of acquiring data from a server, disk or hard drive, a CD, PDA (personal digital assistant), cell phone or virtually any media that has memory and storage capacity. King is also one of the first faculty members to teach in Community College of Philadelphia’s associate’s degree program in Computer Forensics.
As manager of Discovery and Forensic Infrastructure at LDiscovery in Fort Washington, Pa., King’s clients include Fortune 500 corporations, law firms, consulting firms and individuals. She has extensive experience in e-discovery as a former federal employee for a law enforcement consortium and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) computer forensics analyst.
The College’s 60-credit program is designed to provide students with the skills to enter the computer forensics field in the public or private sector, helping employers and individuals recover deleted files, documents, images, e-mails and other data in Windows, Macintosh or Unix-based systems. It also provides those already working in this rapidly changing field with enhanced skills. For security reasons, students must agree to a criminal records check before enrolling in the program. This is to prevent any possible misuse of the skills taught in the program, which trains students in confidentiality and criminal law, as well as technical expertise.
King hadn’t intended to go into data sleuthing. She began her career with a Criminal Justice degree from the College of New Jersey. Her first job was with a federal Regional Information Sharing System (RISS), a clearinghouse that provided support for local law enforcement in the mid-Atlantic region. But as her RISS work brought her more and more exposure to computer systems, she became interested in data extraction in crime investigations. After attending an FBI school for computer forensics, she joined the FBI’s Computer Analysis and Response Team (CART) at its New Jersey Regional Computer Forensic Laboratory.
She enjoys teaching and giving her students technical challenges, such as setting up scenarios in which they must locate a specific file—a literal image or text of a “smoking gun”—buried deep inside some specific media. She also shares her real-world experience, including the latest on opportunities in the field. “There’s a need for a college degree—associate’s or bachelor’s—to get work in the field,” she notes.
It’s possible for a graduate with an associate’s degree to find work in the field, but entry-level positions are hard to get, and the best route into e-discovery is through internships, such as those offered at LDiscovery, her employer.
“Most computer forensics programs are new, and they are growing, so no educational institution has a lock on the field,” King said. “Dave Freeman, the Computer Forensics program director at Community College of Philadelphia, developed a great program and has worked hard with local employers to get the best faculty and identify career options for students.”
Former police detective Dave Carroll didn’t find the degree program he wanted at the University of Pennsylvania, but he learned about Community College of Philadelphia’s Computer Forensics program while working as an IT manager in Penn’s Office of Business Services.
After a conversation with Freeman, Carroll was sold. “I had done some computer crime investigations as a detective, so I was interested in the field. I learned that the program was taught by people working in the forensics industry, with real-world opinions and expertise. They bring to class the actual problems they are working on, which is a great advantage.”
Carroll hopes that his law enforcement experience, combined with a forensics degree, will enable him to find employment as an IT security executive responsible for a corporate or government IT system.
“I can honestly say that I haven’t met a staff member I didn’t like,” Carroll said. “They are accessible and answer all my questions. They like the work they are doing, and they like to teach. I highly recommend the program.”
There are challenges facing computer forensics graduates as the field continues to expand. “New operating systems are being released regularly, and better encryption is coming in that’s harder to break. At the same time, companies are getting smarter about what they need in the forensics area, and that creates opportunities,” King said. “I tell my students they’ve made a great career choice.”