Forensic Computer Analyst

The Job and What's Involved

Forensic computer analysts (FCAs) examine computers and other technology for evidence of computer crime, also known as cybercrime, IT crime or e-crime. Computer crime is on the increase. Most computer users are familiar with annoyances such as spam and virus attacks but computer crime also includes:

  • Phishing - setting up spoof websites to get information from individuals and corporations.
  • Identity theft.
  • Online fraud.
  • Hacking into computers and corrupting data or stealing information.
  • Cyberstalking or harassing people via email.
  • Denial of Service (DoS) attacks - where computers are blocked so that people cannot use them.
  • Chat room grooming.
  • Software piracy.
  • Drug and people trafficking.
  • Child abuse.

FCAs can collect and analyse evidence from computers, even if the evidence has been deleted or corrupted. Evidence can include files, photographs, emails and telephone calls. Analysts need to know how to capture evidence without destroying it. They examine items such as computer hard drives and record their findings as possible future evidence. They may have to attend court to give evidence as part of a criminal case.

They use computer equipment and operating systems such as Windows, Linux and Unix. Specialist software programs can recover lost data or work out encrypted information.

FCAs often work with the police in the investigation of computer crimes. Some police officers have received specialist training in computer crime and work in that area for their own police force or on secondment to the National Hi Tech Crime Unit, which has become part of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) in London. FCAs work in a team that may include IT assistants.

FCAs usually work 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They may have to work shifts or be on call during evenings, weekends and public holidays. The work is mainly office-based.

They may have to travel to people's homes or workplaces and take computer equipment away with them. They may have to deal with difficult situations and be involved in confrontation. A lot of time is spent using computers. A driving licence may be useful.

The starting salary for an FCA is around £20,000 a year.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

There are around 250 FCAs working in high-tech crime units in the UK. Units are usually made up of a combination of police officers and police support staff. Serving police officers who have passed their probationary period can make an internal application to join the force's high-tech unit. For detailed information on entry to and training in the police, see the separate article Police Officer.

There may be opportunities to work for the National Hi Tech Crime Unit. This is a multi-agency unit with staff seconded from the National Crime Squad, the National Criminal Intelligence Service, Customs and Excise, the intelligence agencies and the military.

FCAs can also find work in IT security or as computer fraud investigators, working for private computer forensic companies, banks, law firms and in local and central government.

The number of FCAs is increasing and there are currently more vacancies than applicants. Job adverts for support staff may be found on police force websites, in local newspapers or in specialist IT magazines, such as Computer Weekly. There are also a number of IT recruitment agencies throughout the UK.

Education and Training

Entry is usually with at least a degree in an IT or computing subject and a strong computing background. Graduates from other disciplines can complete IT conversion courses.

Some institutions offer specialist degrees and postgraduate qualifications in forensic computing and information security.

Entry to a degree course is usually with at least two A levels/three H grades and five GCSE's/S grades (A-C/1-3), or the equivalent. Many courses look for much more than the minimum. Useful A level/H grade subjects include maths, computing and science subjects. Entry to a postgraduate course is usually with a relevant first degree.

Foundation degrees in computing and IT subjects are also available. Entry to a Foundation degree is usually with one A level/two H grades or equivalent qualifications.

Applicants may have to undergo a security vetting check. A criminal record could be a disadvantage.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Police staff can receive specialist training from the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA), which offers a wide range of forensic investigation programmes for national and international law enforcement agencies. Training may include the basics of computers, networks and digital online technologies, as well as the relevant law. Specialist training is aimed at those who are working in areas such as online fraud.

Staff involved in work as FCAs or network investigators may be able to take a Masters degree in cybercrime forensics offered by Canterbury Christchurch University in conjunction with the NPIA.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A forensic computer analyst should:

  • Have very good computer skills.
  • Understand the law in relation to computer crime.
  • Be able to solve intricate problems.
  • Remain patient during long and detailed investigations.
  • Be able to examine evidence objectively and impartially.
  • Be able to deal with unpleasant material and images.
  • Be able to write accurate and clear reports.
  • Be able to communicate information clearly to non-technical people.
  • Be willing to keep up with developments in technology.
  • Be a good time manager.
  • Be able to work independently and as part of a team.
  • Be able to deal comfortably with different types of people.
  • Be able to handle difficult situations.

Your Long Term Prospects

FCAs can be promoted to line manager or supervisor. Police officers can progress up the police ranks to senior roles such as inspector or chief inspector.

FCAs with relevant postgraduate qualifications, such as a Masters degree in information security, may have more chance of promotion, especially in the commercial world.

Get Further Information

The British Computer Society (BCS),
1st Floor, Block D, North Star House,
North Star Avenue, Swindon SN2 1FA
Tel: 0845 300 4417

Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA),
PO Box 8000, London SE11 5EN
Tel: 020 7238 8282

Skills for Justice, 9-11 Riverside Court,
Don Road, Sheffield S9 2TJ
Tel: 0114 261 1499

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