Dean Witter, Discover & Co. has chosen Verisign Inc. to supply digital authentication technology for credit card payments over the Internet.

Novus Services Inc., the Dean Witter subsidiary responsible for the Discover-Novus family of cards and payment services, said it expects to be issuing its customers digital certificates by yearend.

The decision could accelerate the availability of Internet payments secured by the MasterCard-Visa standard known as SET, for Secure Electronic Transactions.

Digital certificates, a sophisticated means of validating the identities of on-line merchants, cardholders, and banks, are a critical element in SET, which was endorsed by both Discover and American Express after the bank card groups published their specifications, with assistance from several major technology vendors, early last year.

Some proponents of Internet commerce have expressed impatience with the SET process, which involves months of extensive testing before market availability. Pessimists say SET will not be up to speed before 1998, but Novus has a more ambitious timetable.

Novus executive vice president William Simmons said growth this year in Internet payments would require the security afforded by the encryption- based authentication technique. "We are committed to working quickly to implement a solid Internet commerce solution for our customer base in 1997," he said.

In contrast to the bank card associations, Novus directly serves two million merchant customers. They, along with the 40 million Discover, Private Issue, and Bravo cardholders, will be offered Verisign Digital IDs.

The Novus-Verisign announcement Monday at an annual conference sponsored by RSA Data Security Inc., as well as other recent progress reported by Verisign rival GTE Corp., indicates a gathering momentum and sense of urgency.

With Novus' choice of Verisign, all of the four major card brands have aligned with a digital certification partner. Visa also went with Verisign, while MasterCard and American Express chose GTE's Cybertrust program.

The vendors offer to operate and stand behind the certification program, which will appear to the cardholder or merchant as a service of a bank or credit card organization. To that end, Verisign is putting significant emphasis behind its private-label program, officially announced Monday, to which Novus, Visa, and other major corporations are subscribing.

Verisign and GTE argue-and few have contradicted them-that digital certification is better left to those most knowledgeable about its considerable complexities.

Timing and economics are also compelling. Bob Pratt, product line manager in private-label services, said Verisign could make a customer operational in at most three months for an initial $100,000, plus, at volume pricing, $2 to $4 per Digital ID. The two classes of Verisign IDs currently list at $6 and $12 individually.

Verisign claims an early lead in the authentication race, having issued 500,000 IDs since last August, many through the Netscape and Microsoft Internet browsers. "No one else operates a public certification infrastructure that has issued anywhere near that number," Mr. Pratt said. "And our system is scalable-it is not close to being overloaded."

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