Forensic IT skills spark bidding war

Specialists who deal with recovering digital data in accordance with the rules of evidence are caught in a bidding war between law enforcement agencies and private sector consultancies. Known as forensic computing, it is the latest hot spot on the IT jobs scene.

The ever-growing reliance of business on digitised documents, coupled with trends in electronic commerce and electronic fraud, is driving demand for forensic computing skills.

The private sector is winning the tug-of-war because federal and state police forces can't match the salary packages being offered to the small pool of experts they have developed over the past decade.

In Australia, the number of recognised specialists in the field doesn't exceed 35 and all were employed by policing agencies until recently. In the last year, however, at least six top-tier specialists have departed for private sector employment.

They have been head hunted by management consultancies such as Arthur Andersen, KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Newest KPMG recruit is Rodney McKemmish, formerly of the Queensland Police Force's Forensic Computing Examination Unit and a leader in the field who has won fellowships for overseas study. Ironically, while still a police officer last month, McKemmish delivered a paper at an international conference in which he identified the retention of staff as the one of the biggest challenges facing forensic computing.

Suggestions of poaching were rejected by David Van Homrigh, a KPMG partner and national head of its forensic accounting business unit.

The combination of investigative and technical skills that make up forensic computing exists only in police forces but resource limitations affect how police and other regulatory bodies can respond to business needs in a market dominated by globalisation trends, Van Homrigh said.

"This is about a bureaucratic inability to respond to market forces in respect to remuneration, and the leaders of the police forces understand this."

He also noted McKemmish and other ex-police will be deployed as global resources by the big management consulting firms instead of being restricted to local law enforcement regions.

KPMG believes its 25-member Australian forensic accounting business unit will grow dramatically as the legal headaches posed by digital documents and electronic transactions increasingly hit the business community.

Some of the areas that forensic computing services address include:

* Discovery proceedings which require investigators to recover digital data that has been deleted from, or concealed on a server; * Employee relations cases where staff access inappropriate or illegal material such as child pornography Internet sites;* Reconstructing databases corrupted by accident or deliberately damaged by hackers or viruses.

* Electronic fraud and software piracy;

* Corporate intelligence in the form of legally accessing databases to compile a dossier on potential new investors or business partners.

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