Global Perspectives From Women In Digital Forensics

Women mathematicians and scientists invented the computer algorithm, software as we know it, and the foundation of telecommunications, including wireless communication. They helped break secret enemy messages during World War II, and ensured men got not just into space, but safely home too.

In 2014, NPR reported that around 1984, women stopped coding, driven largely by early computer marketing messages. Since then, building namings notwithstanding, women in cyber remain underrepresented. Although 20 percent of women are now estimated to work in cyber — an increase of nearly 10 percent since 2013 — that proportion still doesn’t reflect the human population.

That’s even more true for women — and men — of color. And as the New York Times has reported, the COVID-19 pandemic is turning out to have a negative impact on many women’s careers for what may turn out to be an entire generation.

This impact could reverberate throughout entire industries. “Diversity is more than just a difference in demographics,” said Dr. Denise Ferebee, an assistant professor and director at the Center for Cybersecurity at LeMoyne-Owen College’s Division of Computer Science and Information Technology.

For example, she continued: “Diversity in cybersecurity can entail someone who works in the music industry and their understanding of sound switching jobs and using those skills for forensic audio analysis.”

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Ferebee’s own experience has helped her as an educator, too. “I have had to teach my students that it is fine to want to study or work in a field where they are underrepresented,” she said. “The major thing that they have to understand is to do their job with integrity.”

In this panel-style piece, Forensic Focus highlights five women from around the world who are doing just that: pushing not just personal comfort zones, but also cultural and structural barriers. As investigators, researchers, business owners and managers, they are, in Ferebee’s words, “letting people see their pursuit of a career in this field… to inspire others to feel that they can do the same or a similar job.” Our panelists are:

  • Adeen Ayub, who graduated with a degree in Software Engineering from the National University of Sciences and Technology, Pakistan. She has a Master’s in Cyber Security from New York University and is now a PhD student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her research interests are Digital Forensics, Industrial Control Systems and Memory Forensics. 
  • Holly Duns, a digital forensic analyst who works on the the Digital Forensics for Law Enforcement team in the United Kingdom’s Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (Dstl)’s Counter Terrorism Division. Duns holds a Master of Science in Digital Forensics with full GCHQ accreditation (2019) and has researched both cyberbullying and the forensic acquisition of a Fitbit Ionic Smart Watch.
  • Jeenali Kothari, a security researcher and author at Hacking Articles, is studying for her Master’s degree in Cybersecurity and Digital Forensics from Raksha Shakti University in Gujarat, India. She has researched the analysis of numerous emerging technologies including big data, video and drone systems, and data security and vulnerabilities.
  • Makoma Toona is a manager within a global auditing and consultancy firm specialising in digital forensics. With just 7 years’ experience in the technology field, Makoma holds a BSc in Computer Science and Applied Mathematics degree and in her early career stages, she has already  attained professional recognitions such as GIAC Certified Forensic Examiner (GCFE) and Certified Forensic Practitioner South Africa – FP (SA). She is also a proud member of the Institute of Commercial Forensic Practitioners (ICFP).
  • Cindy Vasquez owns and operates DGFORENSIKS, a company that equips digital forensic laboratories and trains people in digital forensic topics and tools. With a Master’s degree in Business Administration and more than 8 years on the digital forensic market, Cindy acts as an adviser for the federal and state governments as well as corporations in Mexico, and hosts annual digital forensic events and other public relations activities.

What was it that first drew you to digital forensics, and what do you love most about this field?

Adeen Ayub: I have always been sensitive about issues like privacy and security and I felt that within my field it is an ever growing need. Fresh out of my undergrad, I read an article in the Reader’s Digest about privacy and security and how third parties sometimes get hold of our information.

Sometime later, I read in the newspaper about the WannaCry ransomware that encrypted the data of several Windows based computers. I started exploring similar worms and felt responsible for recovering the devices that get infected. I began exploring how this could be done and got introduced to the world of digital forensics. 

Fast forward to today, I greatly enjoy researching Industrial Control Systems security. Keeping in mind the recent attacks on such systems and their critical nature, it is important for researchers like us to come up with new ways to do forensics analysis after a security breach takes place. It is interesting how thinking like attackers and replicating attacks enables us to recover the compromised devices. 

Digital forensics is all about looking for clues (from small to big) and identifying patterns. I like how this field teaches us that even the smallest of things matter. Because of the innovative nature of attacks, it’s about learning new stuff with every passing day which means that anyone who’s in the field cannot afford to stop learning. It’s not something static and you keep evolving.

Holly Duns: The challenge of learning something completely new that was very complex, but also very useful, is what drew me to digital forensics. I’m a very active person, both physically and mentally, so I like to keep busy and have a purpose. The idea of digital forensics was more appealing due to the constant development of new and emerging technologies and the increasing impact of working in this industry.

The best thing about this field is that it is filled with a huge amount of anomalies that are constantly developing. This means each investigation is different and requires a deeper understanding of the systems, devices and software as well as the methods criminals use to exploit them, which can be really interesting. All it takes is one small update or modification to completely change what is possible.

Jeenali Kothari: I was pursuing my under graduation in Forensic Science and that is where I came across cybercrimes. Since that day, I always wanted to get to the roots of how I could solve these crimes. That is when I decided that I want to make my career in the field of Digital Forensics.

This field is so unique, that you always have a new challenge before you as the technology is advancing day by day and that is something I really love about this field. All the fields in forensic science are unique, but fighting cybercrimes by understanding the breach that has occurred and to identify the hack, have a clear understanding about the source, and recovering any compromised or deleted data is much more than intriguing.

This field has lucrative career and research opportunities which is not limited to any single industry, as it will keep expanding as the technology keeps upgrading. As the global crimes are drifting towards a virtual platform, it is equally important to bring justice to the cyber-victims and punish the offenders. So to sum up, these were the factors which led me to choose digital forensics as a career.

Makoma Toona: I was drawn to digital forensics due to my love for technology, my inquisitive character, my strong problem-solving capabilities and of course that famous TV show which made this field of work so intriguing.

When I first started in forensics, I expected the work to be similar to shows like CSI where an investigation usually reaches a satisfactory ending within a 60 minutes timeframe. However, the reality is very different with investigations spanning months and even years.

In this field, every project is different and comes with its own challenges which helps me broaden my skills and knowledge. This is the most exciting aspect of my job.

Cindy Vasquez: It is strange that I’m in this business. My family owns an oil and gas company, so my family always thought that I would handle the corporation, however I have always been different from the rest. So as the good black sheep of the family I decided to work at three different companies before getting involved in the family business.

One of the companies that I worked for was in the intelligence and counterintelligence field. One of the products that they promoted was FTK by Access Data. So one day I got into a training session about it and I was so impressed with what the tool could do! At the time I didn’t know anything about digital forensics, so it blew my mind!

Since I’m very curious, I started to study the tool, to get more into it and then I started to discover more about other tools. I got a feel for real cases such as kidnapping, narcotrafficking and child exploitation. These are the main challenges in our country, so for the past eight years I have helped several national security agencies to overcome forensic challenges.

What I love about digital forensics is the impact on the investigations, literally every single crime in my country is related to more than one device so being able to help the national security agencies with their cases is AMAZING. I love to know that with the technology and the consultancy I provide they can truly make justice and change someone’s life.

What unique strengths and perspectives do you bring that you feel make your work better?

Adeen Ayub: My strength and grit stem primarily from my faith. Belief in a Higher Power, His love and mercy and that help comes entirely from Him keeps me from losing hope even when things are not working out. It also keeps me grounded and humble when they are. It makes me want to help others, take up good causes and gives me a conscience.

This strong conscience entails that I keep working hard and that I cannot be content until I have tried my absolute best at the tasks assigned to me. This field requires persistence, honesty and a lot of hit-and-trial and these traits equip me for it. 

Holly Duns: I think the notion of being a beginner in this field can be terrifying. There is so much to learn and as things change so quickly, it can be hard to keep up.

Having come into digital forensics with no prior knowledge or experience in either computing or forensics, and setting my goals on completing a one year masters, I had to learn quickly and become efficient with my workload. This has served me well moving into the industry as it is very fast paced and there is always something new to consider.

I think having confidence in what you know and being able to voice your opinions as well as ask questions is so important, especially when working in a domain that has a significant gender imbalance. Being able to discuss concepts, ideas and plans makes learning and developing much easier. This has opened up many opportunities for me and enabled me to get involved with areas of research I never thought I would.

Jeenali Kothari: I feel that staying updated about the current trends and upgrading your current skill set in this field is highly important to work better. My strengths are quite simple as they include reading and practicing about the various digital forensic techniques to achieve perfection.

As digital forensics is all about investigating cybercrimes, it is important to have an appropriate knowledge of digital devices and instruments which will help you in investigating accurately. Keeping up with latest forensic trends like cloud forensics, database forensics, drone forensics, IoT forensics, etc. are extremely important as the traditional forensic techniques are getting superannuated.

What makes my work better is intensive research. It is a long procedure, I must say. To come up with an article, it takes me a really good time as it involves going through research papers, reading relevant books, studying the work that has been performed earlier, trying out the various software that are available and then finally gather all of them and put them in an article.

If you observe, my articles are never plain texted, I also make sure that my creativity is reflected in the articles to hold on to my readers. Therefore, self-education and continuous learning are ultimately my unique strengths.

Makoma Toona: My strong analytical capabilities, paying attention to detail, ability to think outside the box and keeping abreast on new techniques such as those used by perpetrators of cybercrime. This places me in a better position to solve digital forensic cases of any kind.

As a kid, I would play a lot of board games during which I was incredibly passionate not only about following the rules but mainly about coming out top. This has strengthened my problem-solving skills which has been vital in my current role.

Digital forensics requires someone with broad domain knowledge as you never know what a project may require. In my role, I previously had to incorporate different workstreams outside of the traditional IT forensic procedures, which are known mainly as computer and mobile forensics. My knowledge of cyber incident response, data analytics, network forensics and cloud forensics has assisted our team in reaching satisfactory results on investigations.

Cindy Vasquez: I believe the passion that I have for my work is the key to get better each time. I have so much empathy for the people that I work with, I truly care about their mission and I think they can feel my commitment. The respect that I have for the field and for the cases that I’m involved in makes me find a way to succeed. I partner with people that care for the life and safety of other people including children. This makes me give 100% and more on everything I do, that’s what makes me unique.

I hate cases with children involved but I love when the good side wins. Narcotrafficking cases are very interesting and very complex and require a lot of work. We have been finding very knowledgeable people supporting phones and communications for the traffickers, and it’s very frustrating sometimes because they know so much. They know a lot of anti-forensic techniques and how to make sure not to leave evidence on the device. It is very satisfying when we get them.

What’s the biggest career challenge you’ve faced so far, and how did you overcome it?

Adeen Ayub: I belong to a small city, and while growing up, I saw my parents defy the norms as they brought me up with special emphasis on education, empowered me to have opinions and stand by them, contribute to the scientific front, and thus be one of the pioneers in removing gender biases and resetting priorities in the society.

This kind of upbringing and the family environment were key factors in keeping me determined throughout this process. In the society where I come from, when a female wishes to pursue the sciences, she is only encouraged to take up medicine. Professions like engineering and law are considered too ‘masculine’, resulting in a dearth of females in these fields.

Digital forensics and cybersecurity in itself are not well established fields even in my country. Initially when I got off the tracks commonly pursued by girls there and took this one up, I did not know many people in this field and could not find any mentors to guide me. Without a set path to walk on, there were times when I wasn’t even sure if doing all this was possible. I was a bit shy as well, had no connections and limited experience with networking.

However, I told myself that with God on my side, I was strong and that to achieve, instead of looking at my limitations, I just needed to do my part. I had joined a group created by volunteers who guide applicants interested in pursuing higher education in the US. Most of my guidance regarding details of this pathway and the application process came from there.

I have also joined a few groups that promote the role of women in cybersecurity on social media that I must say are very encouraging. I used those to get guidance on getting started with this field.

I further realized that the main reason I was shy and hesitant in asking for help was fear of being refused, and that it mattered only as long as I thought about it. My mother had always told me that feelings that follow rejection can have a negative effect on you as long as you let them. The moment you decide it’s all just a matter of what’s inside your head and that you have a great degree of control over it, you can let go of these thoughts and continue with life better than before because now you’re aware that your limitations are from within.

I kept this in my mind and was able to stop overthinking about things that I felt could affect me negatively. So I became more confident and would not shy away from asking questions and reaching out to people I thought could guide me.

Moreover, in my country, men and women have their own roles and while I was well versed with certain aspects of living independently like cooking etc, I now had to arrange for a place to live in, means of commute etc. Focusing on my goals and the simple thought that all the struggles of immigration were a part of the package kept me motivated to keep striving and figure out things I previously had no experience with.

In this way, with faith, persistence and a strong drive, I was able to push through and do my part regardless of my limitations as a woman from a third world country. I found that when I kept going regardless of circumstances, I gradually found the opportunities I was looking for and one open door led to another until I got where I am today. 

Holly Duns: There have been a number of significant career challenges I have faced so far but the biggest is most definitely presenting at conferences. Presenting was not something I had much, if any, experience of at all, so standing up to talk about something so foreign to me, in a completely unfamiliar environment, in front of a room full of technically skilled and experienced investigators, who are most commonly all men, was and still is terrifying.

Despite having presented at a number of conferences in the UK and EU, I’m not sure it does ever get any easier. Nevertheless, remembering where I started and how far I’ve come and that every opportunity is a learning experience, no matter how much I hate it in the moment, is really what helps me get through.

Jeenali Kothari: The biggest challenge I have faced so far, was implementing the theoretical knowledge I had in digital forensics, as I was not able to find the appropriate platform. Then I joined Hacking Articles, where I got so much liberty to experiment and along with constant research I was able to overcome it.

In my article, “Forensic Investigation: Preserve TimeStamp”, the uniqueness has actually caught many eyes. As all of us are just aware of the regular software and tools but we rarely explore what more the internet has to offer.

So picking up a small topic and manually testing the working of every tool that is relevant to a topic, is how I do my research. It is not always that the research goes as expected but it is always better not to give up, and keep working till even one thing succeeds.

Makoma Toona: Digital forensics is known to be a predominantly male dominated field which often results in the perception that women are not as technical as their male counterparts. I have previously felt the need to always prove myself in order to defy the odds.

I am fortunate enough to currently be working for a team and organization that supports women empowerment and gender equality. This has attributed towards my self-confidence and the ability to reach for even greater heights.

Cindy Vasquez: I have found so many challenges, but the biggest one is that I am a woman. You can add to the fact that I started on this business when I was 27 years old, so I was a young woman. It was hard for me to be respected as a professional and even more in this type of business that is run by mostly men, so it was hard, it took me a couple of years to settle in but thankfully I found very kind people on my way that helped support me through all of the obstacles.

It was hard to gain respect. At the beginning, people from government agencies used to ignore me, they didn’t even pay attention to what I was saying, or they had to validate everything with a male, even if it was the same response they were more comfortable talking with a man. So when nobody knew me, I had to always be with a man for people to actually consider what I was saying.

But my hard work has paid off, I’m very driven so I try to make sure even the toughest people know about me and have good comments about my work. Friendship in this business is also important. The kindness of people that I have met that introduced me to other people and made good references for me, all of that has helped me. And some others just with kind words, giving advice and just being there.

Forensic Focus invites other digital forensic practitioners from underrepresented populations to contribute your stories and expertise with us. Please email for more information.

Christa Miller is a Content Manager at Forensic Focus. She specializes in writing about technology and criminal justice, with particular interest in issues related to digital evidence and cyber law.

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