People involved in the digital certificate business that a multinational group of banks announced last week drew some inspiration from the bank card business.
As if offering something in return, the consortium is including smart cards in its business plan.
The "global trust enterprise," as the New York-based venture is calling itself until it decides on a formal name, is focused on the business and corporate marketplace. It will be responsible for a hierarchical certificate structure based on a root key that banks would use in certifying customers' identities and authenticating their electronic transactions.
Smart cards are seen as a logical vehicle for storing and carrying individual certificates.
"Automated teller machine and credit card networks work because common standards connect very large communities," said Jay T. Simmons, senior vice president of Certco Inc., the public key infrastructure company responsible for the trust enterprise's root key.
Just as banks go to some lengths to assure that credit and debit cards are sent to and used by the right people, those in the global trust venture would ensure secure electronic commerce by correctly binding on-line credentials to their customers - in this case, codes based on data encryption technology and emanating from the root key.
"These banks are stepping up to assure that the credentials are recognizable anywhere in the world," Mr. Simmons said.
Certco is a spinout from Bankers Trust Corp. Both are equity owners of the new, for-profit certification company, along with ABN Amro, BankAmerica Corp., Barclays Bank, Chase Manhattan Corp., Citigroup, Deutsche Bank, and Hypo Vereinsbank.
Interoperability among certificate authorities-each participating institution would make its own technical choice, but the codes would all be derived from the root key-would accomplish the equivalent of "being able to use your ATM card anywhere in the world," Mr. Simmons said.
Emulating the combination of bank card association operating rules with laws and regulations, the enterprise underlines its trust with warranties and liability protections. "That differentiates this from other ventures," said Guy Tallent, vice president of Chase and chairman of the enterprise's steering committee. "We have procedures for handling disputes with recourse."
The framework is "technology neutral," Mr. Simmons said, which gives banks a wide range of choices in how to implement certificates. But he said the group is decidedly drawn toward smart cards because they ease issuance and "life-cycle management" and are more secure than software-based alternatives.
The presence of European banks helped that cause. Tens of millions of bank-issued chip cards are in circulation in the Netherlands and Germany.
"We believe firmly that smart cards are appropriate for the distribution of keys," said Gail Hoffman, vice president of e-commerce new business development in Citibank's e-Citi division.
"We are talking about employees of corporations using identity certificates for physical access, data access, and the ability to get that access from different locations," Ms. Hoffman said. "We see global distribution of smart cards coming, and prices falling."
Interoperability among smart card systems has been lacking, but "the combination of these banks gives a great deal of gravity" to standardization efforts that would encourage global distribution, said Certco president and chief executive officer John Herron Jr.