Cyber security and cyber forensics are two professionals within the broader field of information security, and both contribute to the overall protection of computer systems and data. Though both professions rely on similar tools and training, cyber security and cyber forensics handle different sides of information security, and each’s responsibilities are not quite the same.
What are the differences between Cyber Security and Cyber Forensics? Cyber Security and cyber forensics differ in the following areas when it comes to handling information and data:
- Data Protocols
- Use of Evidence
- Private Sector Positions
- Government Positions
These key differences between working in cyber security versus in cyber forensics can mean a significantly different career path and experience. To better understand how these differences play out in the real world, you’ll need to know more about the responsibilities, training, and specializations of each look like.
1. Different Goals: Prevention vs Reaction
To put it simply, within the world of information and digital security, cyber security focuses on preventing data breaches, and cyber forensics handles what happens after a breach occurs.
Within their IT departments, companies and organizations will hire cyber security personnel for a range of positions that handle designing, building, and programming their internal information systems and databases.
Their jobs handle the tasks of creating, managing, and updating security systems that make it difficult for outsiders to gain unauthorized access.
These security measures can be as simple as setting up password-word protection to as complex as building a self-scanning database from scratch, all depending on the information security needs of the organization. However, when those security measures aren’t enough to keep hackers out of a system, that’s where cyber forensics comes in.
Cyber forensics professionals, usually called computer forensics analysts, are expected to take a system that’s been hacked and potentially damaged to retrieve lost data and retrace the hacker’s steps. Depending on their main goals (information retrieval or cyber crime evidence collection), their methods will differ.
As well talk about further along in this comparison, many computer forensics analysts work with law enforcement and have to follow specific procedures when searching for evidence of how a system was breached.
As a result, professionals in cyber security and cyber forensics each have their approach to understanding a digital system.
2. Different Approaches: Analyzing for Protective Measures vs Breach/Entry Points
Because each profession’s overall purpose approaches information security with complementary goals, cyber security and cyber forensics experts take differing approaches to the systems they’re working on.
Cyber security personnel evaluates systems on what protective measures it needs, while someone in cyber forensics looks for how a hacker gained access. Consequently, cyber security encompasses a lot of different roles within information security, as they’re concentrating on everything and anything that could infiltrate the system they’re protecting.
In contrast, cyber forensics professionals are generally looking out for common threats to system security, and they have to stay up to date on the latest trends in information security hacking, including malware, phishing schemes, and
Overall, cyber security focuses on hypothetical, what could happen in the worst-case scenario, while cyber forensics is grounded in the practical, what has happened.
The difference in their approaches is reflected in their training and education, as cyber security programs focus a lot more on the fundamentals of computer science and/or computer engineering, and cyber forensics programs pay much more attention to understanding cyber criminology and forensic investigation best practices.
3. Different Procedures: System Organization vs. Evidence Gathering
Cyber security education emphasizes system-wide organizational strategies while computer forensics deals with the legal and procedural elements of gathering evidence. Throughout managing and protecting organizations digital systems, cyber security professionals have to deal with the internal procedures and paperwork involved in creating systems for non-experts to use.
This involves creating user access systems, network protocols, conducting audits of company systems usage, and teaching employees and clients how to use the systems they’ve put into place. Generally, companies will develop internal protocols for how to handle these responsibilities.
Cyber forensics professionals can have a very different set of standards to follow. For those working with law enforcement, their major concern is finding the source and/or responsible party of a data breach.
For their evidence to be preserved and usable in criminal proceedings, they need to follow legal guidelines during their analysis, so their findings are verifiable and don’t destroy evidence.
For cyber forensics professionals hired to retrieve data, their main focus is mitigating or assessing the damage a data breach has caused, so the protocols they follow when conducting their investigations will be based on those goals, which sometimes allows them a lot more leeway and speed in search compared to those working in cyber crime investigations.
4. Different Data Protocols: Securing Sensitive Data vs Retrieving Lost Data
In cyber security, professionals work to make sure that sensitive and/or proprietary information is always kept secure. This is done by system analysts and engineers working together to develop systems that prevent unauthorized access, defend against hacking attempts, and monitor overall system security.
At times, this goal either work in concert with or conflict with the goals of cyber forensics professionals, depending on who those forensic analysts work for.
Cyber forensics positions, as we’ll discuss more in-depth later, tend to come primarily in two categories: working for large corporations or different jurisdictions of law enforcement.
In cases of cyber crimes that have breached sensitive databases of a large company, sometimes the efforts of computer forensic analysts working with law enforcement will directly interfere with that company’s cyber security goals.
Although the company may have its cyber forensics attempting to retrieve important data that has been lost, any computer forensics analysts working with law enforcement are strictly doing so to identify and catch the responsible parties. Their work won’t necessarily help the company maintain its secrets.
Often, unless the company is handling systems, programs, or products that are part of the government, corporations will rely on their internal cyber forensics team or hire out consultants when attempting to identify a hack or retrieve information. This way, they’re more likely to retain control over who has access to information or even knows a breach occurred at all.
5. Different Use of Evidence: Improvements vs Investigations
While cyber security professionals will respond to what cyber forensics uncover to improve their systems after a breach, cyber forensics uses evidence to find criminals.
Once a breach has occurred, both cyber security and cyber forensics will need to act, and for the lateral role, there may be professionals working both for the company that was breached and for law enforcement.
Companies, especially larger corporations, may work with internal or consulting computer forensics analysts in response to a data breach or hack.
This is done for several reasons, including retrieving lost data, finding out the extent of the breach, and identifying the hacker – which can help them estimate potential financial losses.
Often, however, companies can forgo having or working with dedicated computer forensic analysts and instead have cyber security personnel with forensics experience or training.
Whichever way they hire experts to handle data breaches, the way they use the information collected during an investigation is the same: they want to find their vulnerabilities, patch them in the short-term, and eliminate them in the long-term.
On the other hand, computer forensics analysts working for law enforcement follow specific procedures that, although they’re looking for the same information as company-hired forensics analysts, will follow different regulations.
Those working with law enforcement have to ensure that their evidence collection meets legal standards to preserve its reliability in criminal proceedings.
6. Different Education: Degrees in Cyber security vs Forensics
To work in either cyber security or cyber forensics, most professionals will need to obtain, at a minimum, a Bachelors’s degree, but the programs required differ between the two professions.
To pursue a career in cyber security, you can earn one of the following undergraduate degrees:
- Computer Science
- Information Assurance
- Computer Engineering
- Information Systems and Technology
Additionally, some higher-level positions in the profession require advanced degrees, which can often come with significantly higher pay.
Due to the widely varying nature of these positions, other cyber security employers may prefer applicants that have a Masters in Business Administration. The requirements all depend on the specific needs of the industry, company, and position.
On the other hand, for jobs in cyber forensics, you’ll generally need a Bachelors’s in either Cyber/Digital Forensics or Cyber Criminology. There are also advanced degrees available in these programs, but having this qualification is not necessarily more valuable than years of experience in the field.
7. Different Specializations: Many Specialties vs Few
When comparing the two professions, cyber security has, by far, many more specializations than cyber forensics. Because of the wide range of responsibilities that cyber security experts can have their roles can either handle general cyber security or can occupy a very specific niche.
The level of specialization often depends on the type and size of the organization a cyber security analyst is working for. If a systems analyst is working for a smaller company, they might be expected to handle a more generalized list of tasks, while the responsibilities of positions at large corporations or federal government can be divided into many specializations, including:
- Systems Architecture
- Information and Data Protection
- Legal Compliance
- Access Management
- System Vulnerability Testing
- IT Systems Development and Operations Security
- Software Development Security
Whereas in cyber forensics, there tend to be different educational focuses, such as programs that emphasize network forensics & risk management, cyber crime & fraud, or computer-related criminal justice & legal policy.
However, these focuses don’t necessarily translate into career specialties, as most cyber forensics professionals work as general computer forensic analysts.
However, there is another common avenue for those trained digital forensics to use their skills. Some higher-level cyber security positions will often look for applicants who have a combination of skills from both professions.
This can be a way for computer forensics professionals to leverage their skills to make a lateral move into the wider job market of cyber security.
While at first trained cyber forensics analysts may obtain similar salaries as they did in traditional digital forensics jobs, over time the combination of their experience and background can potentially allow them to earn much more than they would if they had remained on the normal computer forensic analyst career path.
8. Different Private Sector Positions: All Industries vs Large Corporations
Cyber security positions can be found in practically every industry, as the majority of mid-size to large companies these days have some kind of IT department and many small companies do as well.
Every aspect of information management, database maintenance, and systems security that involve information storage and exchanges such as a company’s website, email servers, payroll, internal software, computer/server network, online sales, in-store sales, internet connections, and digital assets (such as sensitive or proprietary information) require cyber security professionals to handle it all.
Pretty much any company that handles any of its business digitally likely uses has at least some people in their IT department handling cyber security responsibilities if not a dedicated team of cyber security personnel.
On the other hand, computer forensics positions in the private sector are generally found three types of fairly large companies or corporations, private investigation companies, computer forensics consulting firms that do contract work for other companies, or as internal personnel for large companies with considerable digital assets.
For the last category, generally speaking, any company on the Fortune 500 list most likely has its cyber forensics team. As well get into later, they have a lot of financial incentives to keep computer forensics analysts on staff, as sensitive information they’re guarding can be worth quite a lot of money, and they won’t want the security risk of hiring out contractors to trace any data breaches.
9. Different Government Positions: Federal Government vs Law Enforcement
Within the public sector, cyber security and cyber forensics professionals generally occupy distinctly different jobs. Many cyber security professionals are employed by the federal government and work in securing sensitive databases and systems that different governmental departments use.
This means that there is a wealth of cyber security jobs and federal government agencies (as well as contractors who work with them) are a source of very lucrative positions in this field. These jobs can focus on protecting information and systems that deal with identity (like SSNs), financial assets, and national security.
Federal government agencies that commonly employee cyber security experts include, among many others:
- the Department of Defense (DoD)
- the National Security Agency (NSA)
- Homeland Security
- the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
- the Securities and Exchanges Commission (SEC)
Additionally, many of these agencies want to encourage those considering or pursuing education in this area to work with them. Many agencies have specific cyber security internship or scholarship programs, which can help those selected get a head start on a government cyber security career, a niche of the profession that can be extremely competitive.
Cyber forensics jobs in the government, on the other hand, tend to be with law enforcement agencies or jurisdictions at every level, municipal/local, state, and national.
Although there are cyber forensics positions within larger federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, CIA, and Homeland Security, they’re generally cyber security positions that require cyber forensic experience or training.
10. Different Salaries: Average of $76,000 vs $58,000
According to Glassdoor, as of 2020 in the U.S., the average salary for an information security analyst is $76,410 while the average salary for a computer forensics analyst is $57,775.
Part of this $20,000 discrepancy in salary is explained by a difference in educational background. Although the majority of positions in either profession only require a bachelor’s degree, significantly more cyber security positions have more stringent requirements: 58% of these positions require an undergraduate degree and 27% call for a master’s degree.
Additionally, in both professions, factors like experience, location, specialization, and type of employer can greatly affect the average salary.
For cyber security jobs, higher-level positions in competitive companies can often earn significantly, more, which is why, although the average salary is much lower, the median (or midpoint) salary for computer security analysts in 2018 was $98,250, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In comparison, the most experienced professionals in cyber forensics, those with over 20 years in the field, can expect to make only about $10,000 more than that, at an average of $110,000 in annual salary. This, of course, doesn’t take into account those with computer forensics experience who shift to, generally speaking, equally or higher-paying cyber security jobs.
Cyber security and cyber forensics may often work hand-in-hand to promote individual companies’ and national information security, but each has its focuses, training, approaches, and positions within the overall field.
While their basic difference is that the former focuses on data breach prevention and the latter handles cyber crime evidence processing, the distinctions between cyber security and cyber forensics go much further than that. As a result, each has its typical career path and positions available to them on the job market.
Someone working in cyber security has the advantage of having a wide market of positions they can apply for and specializations that they can pursue, while a cyber forensics professional has a narrower scope. Additionally, cyber security positions average almost $20,000 more in annual salary compared to cyber forensics.
However, with the right combination of education and experience, those with cyber forensics training can often transition into positions under the cyber security umbrella. This can often be a way to obtain higher salaries and broader experience in the information security sector without having to return to school in pursuit of an advanced degree.
What is meant by cyber forensics? Cyber forensics handles what happens after a breach has occurred. By trying to determine how the breach was caused, who was involved and what was stolen or damaged.
What is cyber security? Cyber security is used to protect data from breaches, damage and to make sure data can carry on being available for it’s intended use.
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