GTE Corp. has won a big early victory in the battle to provide digital security for card payments.

American Express Travel Related Services Co. chose GTE's CyberTrust division to manage its digital certificates for card members and merchants doing business over the Internet.

The GTE unit, also offering the technology to banks through an alliance with MasterCard International, will issue certificates labeled American Express NetIDs.

Verisign Inc., shaping up as CyberTrust's principal competitor, won Visa International's endorsement in July.

Also known as digital signatures, the certificates authenticate buyers and sellers in an electronic transaction, where there is no face-to-face contact or eyeballing of written signatures.

Digital certification, based on data encryption technology, is a key element of the Secure Electronic Transactions protocol, or SET, that MasterCard and Visa published earlier this year, and that American Express and Discover also signed onto.

American Express in February said it had licensed technology from Microsoft Corp. to build an SET-secured Internet gateway for its cards. Microsoft participated with the bank card associations in the development of SET along with GTE, Verisign, and other technology providers.

Of the credit-card certificate suppliers, Verisign may have gotten the faster start. The Mountain View, Calif., company was spun off in early 1995 by RSA Data Security Inc., the data encryption leader that licenses systems to GTE, Microsoft, IBM, and many others. Verisign describes itself as the only company "100% dedicated" to digital identification.

Officials at GTE, a $20 billion telecommunications company that emphasizes its experience and diversification, said the American Express signing will divert some of the attention Verisign has been enjoying.

"This substantiates us as a significant player in the digital certificate marketplace," said CyberTrust director Tom Carty.

He said momentum has been building since the MasterCard endorsement in July toward "service offerings with a number of customers in the United States and internationally."

"American Express is well positioned to be a global leader in secure electronic commerce," said Richard F. Umlah, vice president and general manager of the GTE Network Services division.

"The system we are building with GTE ensures a high level of confidence that one individual is not using another's 'computer identity' and credit card number fraudulently," said David Bauman, American Express' senior vice president of interactive services.

American Express said its NetID registration process will be rigorous to ensure security and integrity. The company will not charge a fee.

Like most others in the gathering race to handle SET-compliant card transactions, GTE and Amex hope to complete testing before yearend and offer international availability in the first half of 1997.

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