A common rap against bankers is that they just tolerate technology as a necessary evil, and on rare occasions when they see it as a business opportunity, they flub it.

Edward G. Harshfield does not fit the description.

The vice chairman of California Federal Bank, formerly of Citicorp and Household International, wears an additional hat these days as chairman and chief executive officer of Secured Information Technology Inc.

This 10-person shop in Los Angeles, incorporated a year ago, is beginning to attract notice for a fresh approach to data encryption, to the digital certificates and signatures that encryption makes possible, and to building the heretofore elusive business case around it.

For Mr. Harshfield, 61, it is a business and investment opportunity.

It has unleashed the energies of several co-founders, including technologists Behzad Sadeghi and John J. Beahan Jr. and veteran technology and risk management consultant Mitchell Grooms, who came to know Mr. Harshfield through earlier affiliations.

They are sitting on a potential gold mine of patents in elliptic curve cryptography, a promising method for speeding the notoriously slow number- crunching associated with standard encryption algorithms, and for storing keys and certificates on smart cards.

"We see elliptic curve as a core technology shift," Mr. Grooms said recently. "How do you sell that to industries that have never seen it?"

One way to reach bankers is to appeal to their heritage as trusted agents and to their survival instincts.

"We want the clients-banks-to win," Mr. Grooms said. "Banks would get it if they were presented a workable model, and nobody, until now, has done that."

Besides flogging elliptic curve, which has only recently emerged from maverick status, Mr. Grooms and SITI are drawn to the Account Authority Digital Signature proposal of Lynn and Anne Wheeler of First Data Corp.

Mr. Wheeler said SITI has "very promising technology for large-scale deployment of digital signatures."

SITI says streamlined digital certification, elliptic curve, and other components of a digital transaction and content-distribution system can add up to secure electronic commerce on a massive scale-and a bonanza for banks if they wake up to it.

For now, there is groundwork to be laid and political and competitive shoals to navigate.

Mr. Harshfield, not available to be interviewed for this article, "gives us as much time as we can get," said Mr. Grooms.

"Business is everything to Ed. He is invaluable."

Smart card expert Henry Dreifus of Dreifus Associates Ltd., Orlando, said, "For them this is a business play. If their models are right, they could be one of the first to make this really economical."

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