In a sign of how fast the stakes are rising in the electronic certification business, Digital Signature Trust Co. has hired away a key employee of Certco LLC.

Digital Signature Trust, known as DST and affiliated with Zions Bancorp. of Salt Lake City, appointed Alan Asay vice president of legal practices.

DST has a business alliance with Certco, a spinoff of Bankers Trust New York Corp. that supplies the public key infrastructure technology at the heart of digital signature operations.

J. Scott Lowry, president of DST, said Mr. Asay "is considered by most in digital signature circles as the leading authority in the field."

A recent Wired magazine article referred to Mr. Asay as the "godfather of digital signatures." He was among several people honored last Nov. 19 by Gov. Michael Levitt of Utah, when DST became the first certificate authority to be licensed under pioneering legislation that gave the technology a legal standing similar to written signatures.

New York-based Certco provides the root key that accredits Digital Signature Trust and any other Utah-licensed authority that will be issuing and managing digital certificates.

Mr. Asay, who has a law degree from Brigham Young University, was the principal author of the Utah law and helped create an electronic document filing system for the state's courts.

With several other lawyers under the American Bar Association's aegis, Mr. Asay began studying digital signatures in the early 1990s. He was a legal counsel to Certco, working in the business and product development area on financial industry and government projects.

Technology companies have seized on this variant of data encryption as a way to authenticate buyers and sellers in Internet commerce. Zions was one of the first banks to begin building a business around certification.

In January the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency gave its approval to DST as an operating subsidiary of Zions First National Bank. This month the American Bankers Association said it would rely on DST for the root key service it hopes to provide to banks and other financial services companies in electronic commerce.

In a recent interview, Mr. Lowry said "intellectual capital" will be crucial to companies like his.

Jon Matonis, Digital Signature Trust's vice president of sales and marketing, said, "We need people who have been in the digital signature world five to 10 years if we are to position ourselves as the expert in the industry." Not too many people fill that bill the way Mr. Asay does.

Mr. Matonis is also one of those veterans, moving last year to DST in Salt Lake City after two years with Verisign Inc., the California-based company that commandeered another longtime legal expert, Michael Baum. Mr. Matonis worked on Verisign's efforts with the SET credit card protocol and its alliance with Visa, where he had also worked.

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