What Is the Difference Between Computer Forensics and Cyber Security?

Computer forensics and cyber security may seem similar, but these career paths both have their own unique differences. Computer forensics deals with locating data that was compromised during a cyberattack,  while cyber security aims to prevent cyberattacks before they occur. To put it in other terms, computer forensics is a reactionary while cyber security is preventative.

In this article we’ll explore more of the differences between computer forensics and cyber security by defining each in the following sections:

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What is Cyber Security?

Cyber security focuses on deploying tools and creating protocols that defend against cyberattacks. Cyber security professionals use a combination of information technology (IT) skills such as programming, networking and a knowledge of operating systems (OS) to create a system that cannot be breached, thus protecting the information within the system and protect the system’s ability to function.

While cyber security as a discipline is primarily concerned with preventing cybercrime, ethical hackers are professionals that play an important part the cyber security field. Those who work in this niche position will actively use their offensive skills in order to test a network’s strengths, search for weaknesses and suggest how to improve them.

While it may surprise you, cyber security involves working with non-digital information as well as digital. For example, tasks like setting user permissions, establishing file transfer protocols (FTP) and frequently changing secure passwords are all vital elements of cyber security. And this responsibility is  not just up to one individual; everyone within an organization needs to know how to practice safe computer usage for proper security to be maintained.

What is Computer Forensics?

Computer forensics involves recovering data from a device with the goal of revealing evidence of criminal activity. It is a reactionary practice, meaning it usually takes place after a security breach has already happened, and is not concerned with the prevention of cybercrime, like cyber security is. However, while computer forensics professionals do not prevent cybercrime themselves, the information they uncover can help inform cyber security professionals about how to prevent cybercrimes in the future.

Computer forensics professionals usually work in one of two capacities: they work either with investigators to access a device’s data, or with companies to help them recover lost data. In the first scenario, a computer forensics professional is given access to a suspect’s device in order to help uncover evidence. After receiving the device, they use programming, hardware and software knowledge to help reveal data that can serve as evidence in a trial. In order to do this, the data must be recovered in a very particular manner that does not violate the suspect's rights.

Others who work in computer forensics do so for private companies. These professionals use similar skills to those who work in criminal investigations, but their goal  is to recover data so that the company can resume normal operations and regain security for its customers and stakeholders. If the data loss was the result of cybercrime, they may turn over the data as evidence to a law enforcement agency.

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Cyber Security vs. Computer Forensics

As discussed, cyber security is focused on prevention while computer forensics is about recovery and reaction. Despite their differences, both are meant to protect data, programs, networks and other digital assets. Cyber security helps to prevent cybercrimes from happening, while computer forensics helps recover data when an attack does occur and also helps identify the culprit behind the crime.

It helps to think of cyber security professionals as a security company, and to think of computer forensics experts as investigators. If you’re considering either of these two disciplines as a career choice, ask yourself which path better suits your interests and career goals.

What Types of Tools Do Cyber Professionals Use?

In order to do their jobs, cyber security professionals use many different kinds of tools to protect networks and the information they house. Some of the tools they use include:

  • Web application firewalls (WAF): These firewalls help protect web applications from breaches and keep data secure.
  • Vulnerability scanners: These tools help scan through networks and programs to identify vulnerabilities that can be potentially exploited by cybercriminals.
  • Penetration testing tools: Penetration testing tools are used by cyber security professionals to carry out sanctioned hacks on their own systems in order to uncover weaknesses.
  • Malware detectors: Malware detectors review sites and programs to see whether they have been infected with malware and pose a threat.
  • Password security tools: Password security tools help identify  weak passwords, autofill saved passwords or generate passwords to help keep devices secure.

What Specializations are Available in Cyber Security and Computer Forensics?

Cyber security and computer forensics both have a few specializations that focus on specific areas of the practice. Cyber security has far more specializations, such as:

  • Systems architecture
  • Software security
  • Access management
  • Ethical hacking and vulnerability assessment

Computer forensics specializations tend to be related to the reason why the data is being recovered. The main specializations are:

  • Criminal investigations
  • Data recovery 

Data recovery specialists are mostly concerned with getting data back in the hands of its rightful owner, though they may also perform an audit to find evidence of a data breach if the data was stolen rather than lost through a technical issue.

Which Field is Right for Me?

Determining which field is right for you depends on your goals and interests. Cyber security may be a more interesting field to those who wish to protect other people's data from cybercrimes. Computer forensics is likely to appeal to people who are interested in technology and detective work because of its investigative nature.

The good news is that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics1, Information Security Analyst positions are expected to grow by 33% on a national level between 2020 and 2030, though a bachelor’s degree and experience in the field are required for many positions in either the cyber security or computer forensics industries.

DeVry University can help you start on the path toward a new career. We offer a Bachelor's Degree in Computer Information Systems with specializations in both Cyber Security Programming and Computer Forensics.

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1https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/information-security-analysts.htm Growth projected on a national level. Local growth will vary Local growth will vary by location.