Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce is in the first stage of a digital signature project that it plans to expand to a complete suite of products.

The Toronto company this week began letting its 800,000 Internet banking customers use e-signatures free to apply for unsecured lines of credit, transaction accounts, overdraft protection, and Visa cards, and to contribute to retirement savings plans, all online.

Kenn Lalonde, Canadian Imperial's executive vice president for direct-to-consumer banking, said this is "really an initial launch."

"We want to go beyond basic transaction services online," he said. "We believe this is only the beginning of a full product offering online for our customers."

The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act, which took effect in the United States in October, gives e-signatures the same legal weight as ink signatures. A similar law, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, was passed in April 2000 in all of Canada's provinces except Quebec.

Customers can use the technology by logging on to Canadian Imperial's Web site and filling out an application for one of the available services. After the application is submitted, a screen pops up showing a user name and one-year expiration date. The customer approves the name, enters a password, and is given a unique digital certificate number.

The certificates, which can be used for multiple product applications, reside on a customer's computer hardware. People who use more than one computer can apply for additional certificates, though there is a maximum of three per e-mail address.

Digital certificate technology can authenticate people's identity, but CIBC is confirming customers' identities through their bank card numbers and the passwords required to sign on to the bank's Web site. For that reason, only established customers can use the certificates.

"One of the key inhibitors historically for customers in applying for products online is the fact that we've required them to go into a branch to sign documents," Mr. Lalonde said. "We believe this is the first step in enabling customers to fulfill their product needs online."

Rembert de Villa, vice president of global financial practice for A.T. Kearney Inc., a New York consulting firm, said adoption of digital signatures "is always going to be a problem," though he said it helps to let people use them free.

"Digital signatures are merely a good way of authenticating transactions," he said. "I will need to be convinced that I want to do online banking first. So it's a feature. It's not the answer itself, but from my standpoint it's a big feature."

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