Eager to pave the way for electronic commerce, two more major technology players have teamed up to develop secure means of sending sensitive information over public networks.

AT&T Bell Laboratories, the research and development arm of the telecommunications giant, and VLSI Technology Inc., a circuitry manufacturer, are working together to create computer chips to encrypt sensitive data. These silicon chips can be embedded into computers, as well as phones, wireless networks, smart credit cards, cable boxes, and other media that might carry home shopping or home banking transactions, as well as interactive entertainment options.

Many banks, bank-related companies - including both bank card associations - and software vendors have begun to develop, test, and offer this technology in an effort to ease the way for electronic commerce services.

It is widely accepted that banking and shopping at home - services that promise to play a big role in the future of the banking industry - will not be possible without the ability to safely conduct credit card numbers or other critical information over computer, cable, or telephone networks.

"The information superhighway won't really become practical until everyone can be sure that their transactions and communications are both private and secure against tampering," said Mike Kaplan, the director of the secure technologies department at Bell Labs.

AT&T and VLSI have already developed one product - an encryption system for set-top cable receivers that is being provided through Cablevision Systems Corp. Cablevision will use the technology to offer enhanced pay- per-view and video-on-demand services within the year.

AT&T has been looking to partner with other service providers, like Cablevision, in hopes of expanding the range of applications for this technology, according to David Maher, chief scientist for Bell Labs' secure technology department.

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