Digital Signature Trust Co., a subsidiary of Zions Bancorp of Salt Lake City, said it will soon distribute 80,000 digital certificates to veterans for their benefits program, in one of the first large-scale initiatives to offer consumers electronic authentication tools.

The certificates - credentials that authenticate parties to an online transaction - will initially be used in the Veterans Online Application program for educational, compensation, pension, and vocational rehabilitation benefits. About 100,000 veterans are expected to begin using this service by the end of next summer.

The Department of Veterans Affairs was awarded 100,000 digital signature certificates by the General Services Administration in July, the first portion of 500,000 certificates that will be doled out to agencies over the next year under the federal Access Certificates for Electronic Services program.

Digital Signature Trust, which is also in Salt Lake City, will issue an additional 8,000 certificates on behalf of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The agency will use the certificates to give emergency managers at federal, state, and local government agencies access to special databases and Web sites.

Another digital signature vendor, AT&T Corp., will issue 20,000 certificates for the veterans department and 2,000 for the emergency management agency.

The issuance "represents another major achievement in our effort to provide the American people easy, secure, electronic access to government information," said David Barram, commissioner for the GSA.

Once the certificates have been issued, both Digital Signature Trust and AT&T will act as certificate authorities and will keep the identity and public key information for each individual or business receiving a certificate.

Henry Dreifus, a data security consultant in Orlando, said the government's digital signature program will help move the technology "into the consumer space."

"We're going to see an explosion of digital signatures now that we have this law," Mr. Dreifus said, referring to legislation signed by President Clinton in June that gives digital signatures equal weight as ones on paper.


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