What is the difference between cyber security and digital forensics?

Cyber security and digital forensics are related fields that both involve protecting computer systems and networks from threats. However, there are some key differences between the two.

What is Cyber Security?

Cyber security refers to the practice of defending computers, servers, mobile devices, electronic systems, networks and data from malicious attacks. It involves implementing various processes, technologies and practices designed to protect networks, devices and programs from damage or unauthorized access.

The main goals of cyber security include:

  • Protecting information and systems from major threats like malware, phishing, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and other cyber attacks
  • Detecting breaches and anomalies through monitoring and analytics
  • Implementing disaster recovery and business continuity processes
  • Complying with regulations around consumer data and privacy
  • Educating users about best practices for internet safety and security

Some common cyber security practices and tools include:

  • Network security measures like firewalls, intrusion detection/prevention systems (IDS/IPS)
  • Endpoint security through antivirus, anti-malware software
  • Access controls like multi-factor authentication
  • Data encryption
  • Security information and event management (SIEM) solutions
  • Vulnerability assessments and penetration testing
  • Security awareness training for employees

Cyber security is focused on prevention and protection. Its goal is to anticipate cyber threats and implement safeguards and best practices to avoid security incidents.

What is Digital Forensics?

Digital forensics refers to the science of recovering, uncovering and analyzing artifacts found on digital devices. It involves preserving, recovering, analyzing and presenting evidence from computers, mobile devices, networks or any other digital media.

The key goals of digital forensics include:

  • Collecting and analyzing data from digital devices and systems
  • Recovering deleted, encrypted or corrupted files
  • Uncovering activity histories and logs
  • Gathering and preserving evidence to identify security incidents
  • Supporting internal investigations and legal proceedings
  • Complying with e-discovery regulations

Some common digital forensics tools and techniques include:

  • Imaging hard drives and devices
  • Network and database forensics
  • File recovery tools
  • Mobile device forensics
  • Web browser forensics
  • Forensic data analysis
  • File system analysis

Digital forensics focuses on investigation and analysis. Its purpose is to thoroughly examine digital evidence and artifacts after an incident has occurred.

Key Differences Between Cyber Security and Digital Forensics

While cyber security and digital forensics are complementary disciplines, there are some notable differences between the two fields:

Cyber Security Digital Forensics
Focuses on prevention Focuses on investigation
Aims to protect systems and data Aims to uncover and analyze evidence
Implemented before attacks Used after incidents occur
Uses controls and safeguards Uses investigative techniques
Looks for anomalies and threats Examines digital artifacts
Driven by compliance regulations Driven by legal requirements

In summary, cyber security is proactive while digital forensics is reactive. Cyber security aims to keep threats out, while digital forensics aims to discover what already happened.

The Cyber Security Process

Cyber security follows a strategic cycle to continually identify, assess, and reduce risks to IT systems and data. The main steps in this process include:

  1. Asset Identification – Creating an inventory of all hardware, software, data and other technology resources.
  2. Risk Assessment – Analyzing vulnerabilities, threats, and potential business impacts across identified assets.
  3. Access Controls – Implementing security measures like authentication and authorization to limit access.
  4. Protective Technology – Deploying solutions like firewalls, IDS/IPS, encryption to safeguard infrastructure and devices.
  5. Policies and Procedures – Establishing security programs, practices and controls aligned with standards.
  6. Training – Educating employees on security best practices and responsibilities through awareness programs.
  7. Third Party Management – Coordinating security across vendors, partners and other external relationships.
  8. Incident Response – Developing processes to detect, investigate, mitigate and recover from security events.
  9. Compliance – Adhering to required regulations around data protection, privacy, industry standards, etc.
  10. Testing and Monitoring – Verifying effectiveness through audits, penetration testing, simulations and other evaluations.

This strategic approach allows organizations to implement layered defenses tailored to mitigate their greatest risks.

The Digital Forensics Process

Digital forensics follows a detailed process to recover and interpret electronic evidence. The key phases include:

  1. Identification – Detecting an incident has occurred and identifying potential sources of evidence.
  2. Preservation – Isolating, securing and preserving evidence before it can be damaged or destroyed.
  3. Collection – Gathering relevant data from identified sources, while maintaining integrity.
  4. Examination – Forensically analyzing collected evidence using appropriate tools and techniques.
  5. Analysis – Reviewing results to reconstruct events, draw conclusions and determine significance.
  6. Presentation – Effectively documenting and communicating findings through reports and presentations.

Strict procedures must be followed in each phase to ensure evidence remains admissible in legal proceedings.

Use Cases for Cyber Security vs. Digital Forensics

Cyber security and digital forensics serve different primary use cases:

Cyber Security Use Cases

  • Implementing firewalls, IDS/IPS or proxies to filter traffic and protect infrastructure
  • Deploying antivirus and anti-malware tools to block exploits and detect suspicious activity
  • Using VPNs and remote access controls to securely connect remote employees
  • Enforcing access management through identity management and multi-factor authentication
  • Encrypting data at rest and in motion to prevent unauthorized access
  • Backing up critical systems to enable recovery from outages or disasters
  • Educating employees on risks through security awareness training programs
  • Performing vulnerability assessments and penetration tests to uncover weaknesses

Digital Forensics Use Cases

  • Conducting forensic analysis to identify root causes after a malware infection or intrusion
  • Collecting and examining log data after suspicious activity is detected
  • Recovering deleted or destroyed files after a system compromise
  • Obtaining legal evidence during internal investigations into data leaks, fraud or policy violations
  • Gathering electronic evidence to support criminal or civil litigation processes
  • Analyzing mobile device, network or application data related to crimes or lawsuits
  • Uncovering details about past security incidents for lessons learned exercises

Skills Needed for Cyber Security vs. Digital Forensics

These two fields require some overlapping skills as well as some distinct areas of expertise:

Cyber Security Skills

  • Risk assessment and management
  • Security architecture and tools knowledge
  • Networking fundamentals (TCP/IP, firewalls, etc.)
  • Operating systems administration
  • Compliance and auditing
  • Vulnerability assessment
  • Security policies and governance
  • Incident response
  • Security training and awareness programs

Digital Forensics Skills

  • Data collection and preservation techniques
  • File system analysis
  • Investigation and evidence handling protocols
  • Forensic toolkits (EnCase, FTK, etc.)
  • Mobile device and cloud forensics
  • File decryption and password cracking
  • Log analysis
  • Programming for scripting and automation
  • Legal and reporting requirements

Roles in Cyber Security vs. Digital Forensics

Some common roles within each field include:

Cyber Security Roles

  • Chief Information Security Officer (CISO)
  • Security Analyst/Engineer
  • Security Architect
  • Security Auditor
  • Security Software Developer
  • Security Administrator
  • Incident Responder
  • Privacy Officer

Digital Forensics Roles

  • Digital Forensics Examiner
  • Forensics Investigator
  • Forensics Analyst
  • eDiscovery Specialist
  • Computer Forensics Manager
  • Mobile Forensics Examiner
  • Forensics Lab Technician

There can be overlap, such as security analysts using some forensic techniques or forensics examiners supporting cyber incident response. But the focus of day-to-day responsibilities differs between the two areas.

Cyber Security Certifications

Some of the top cyber security certifications include:

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)
  • Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH)
  • CompTIA Security+
  • Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Cyber Ops
  • Certified Information Systems Auditor (CISA)
  • GIAC Security Essentials (GSEC)
  • ISO 27001 Lead Implementer
  • Certified Cloud Security Professional (CCSP)

These certifications validate skills in areas like security operations, risk management, auditing, hacking techniques, and governance policies and procedures.

Digital Forensics Certifications

Some common digital forensics certifications include:

  • Certified Forensic Computer Examiner (CFCE)
  • Certified Cyber Forensics Professional (CCFP)
  • GIAC Certified Forensic Analyst (GCFA)
  • GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner (GCFE)
  • Certified Information System Security Practitioner (CISSP) – Forensics
  • AccessData Certified Examiner (ACE)
  • Digital Forensics Certification Board (DFCB) Examiner Certification

These validate expertise in preserving, analyzing, and presenting digital evidence from various devices and systems.

Career Prospects and Salaries

Both cyber security and digital forensics offer promising career opportunities given the growing risk landscape for organizations and rise in cyber crimes. However, salaries can vary between the two fields.

Cyber Security Salaries

Cyber security salaries typically range from approximately:

  • Entry Level Security Analyst: $75,000 – $90,000
  • Mid-Career Security Engineer: $95,000 – $125,000
  • Senior Security Architect: $120,000 – $180,000
  • CISO: $180,000 – $250,000+

Digital Forensics Salaries

Digital forensics salaries often range from:

  • Entry Level Forensics Examiner: $55,000 – $75,000
  • Mid-Career Forensics Analyst: $80,000 – $110,000
  • Senior Forensics Investigator: $110,000 – $150,000
  • Director of Forensics: $140,000 – $180,000

Salaries vary based on location, experience, employer and other factors. But cyber security roles tend to pay higher median wages than digital forensics at most levels.


Cyber security and digital forensics are closely aligned fields focused on protecting systems, data, and organizations from cyber threats. While there is some overlap, cyber security is focused on proactive prevention while digital forensics involves detailed reactive investigation after incidents. Through complementary capabilities and expertise, cyber security and digital forensics professionals work together to strengthen the overall security posture of organizations and uncover the root causes of attacks.