Revving up efforts to transport data safely over the information superhighway, BankAmerica Corp. plans to test electronic data encryption at a handful of its merchants as early as next month.

The San Francisco-based banking company -- one of the first banks, and so far the largest, to employ such technology -- will use encryption software to scramble bank card account numbers and other sensitive information as it is conveyed over computer networks.

Bankers and merchants hope that securing data in this fashion will facilitate computer-based home shopping and other network functions in the coming age of electronic commerce.

This age -- which will take these formerly high-tech applications to a wider field -- has been loudly heralded this year by a raft of agreements, alliances, and acquisitions by some of the biggest and most dynamic bank and nonbank players.

BankAmerica will install data encryption software developed by Mountain View, Calif.-based Netscape Communications Corp., an eight-month-old company specializing in electronic commerce software.

This emerging business pits tiny Netscape against juggernauts such as Microsoft Corp. and Visa International, which paired up last month to develop a similar encryption offering.

But experts noted that timing could prove as vital as size or product content, given the fast-paced and revolutionary nature of the electronic commerce business.

BankAmerica's vote of confidence in Netscape is evidence of this.

"We are fully cognizant of the Microsoft and Visa affiliation," said Jim Aviles, vice president of marketing for merchant services at BankAmerica. "But maturity is an issue, and this is ready to go to market."

The bank will offer the service first through "less than a dozen" of its own merchants in January, Mr. Aviles said. During this testing period, the bank plans to monitor purchases carefully over the electronic pathway. Areas that will get the most scrutiny include transaction volume and charge-back volume.

BankAmerica will share the lessons learned with the card associations, hoping to arrive at an industrywide security standard for such transactions.

Beyond the initial pilot schedule, BankAmerica executives have not plotted out plans for the product's rollout.

The bank's deal with Netscape does not preclude it from investigating other potential encryption alliances, Mr. Aviles said.

But for the moment, the bank believes Netscape to be the best vendor providing software to encrypt data and to authenticate merchants on computer networks.

Before the BankAmerica deal, the software company had already made important inroads in selling its data encryption technology to banks. Last month, Netscape aligned itself with the preeminent credit card processor, First Data Corp., to sign up banks for secure on-line transactions and data interchange.

The pair has already garnered three bank customers for its service: First Interstate Bank of California, Norwest Corp.'s Norwest Card Services unit, and Old Kent Bank and Trust Co., Grand Rapids, Mich.

Netscape is also developing an "on-line shopping mall" for MCI Communications Corp., according to Charlie Jadallah, director of financial services at Netscape.

In this project, merchants maintain a storefront in a computer-generated shopping center, through which consumers can browse and make credit card purchases via a secure encrypted route.

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