Equifax Inc. has thrown its hat into the digital certificate ring.

The largest provider of consumer credit information in the United States and a growing force internationally, Equifax sees a use for its enormous data base in the fledgling business of authenticating identities in on-line transactions.

Atlanta-based Equifax and International Business Machines Corp. announced this week that they will jointly develop and market digital certificate services.

Equifax will provide the issuance, renewal, and revocation of electronic credentials on an outsourced basis. The service will be integrated with IBM's software for storing and managing certificates.

Digital certification, which relies on data encryption technology to keep electronic data and messages secure from tampering and eavesdropping, is widely viewed as a key to personal privacy on the Internet.

Equifax said it can draw on consumer credit histories on 190 million Americans to aid in the first crucial step of certification-the authentication of consumer identities. Equifax would also apply its experience in credit-file management in issuing and revoking certificates.

The vast volumes of ever-changing consumer data should not be a problem for Equifax, said Thomas F. Chapman, president and chief executive officer, since the company conducts 2,000 transactions a second and connects buyers and sellers millions of times a day.

Equifax is well-placed to play the role of registration authority because of its detailed consumer data base, said David Stewart, a director at Global Concepts Inc. of Norcross, Ga. "It is in a good position to validate the creditworthiness of individuals," he said.

With IBM providing the software to store certificates, the two companies are "combining their respective strengths to create the ideal scenario," Mr. Stewart said. "If digital certificates are going to mature, this is one step toward making it happen."

IBM and Equifax initially will target North America but plan to expand, riding on the government approval IBM has obtained to export strong encryption from the United States.

IBM officials said some of the 17 member banks of the Integrion Financial Network, a remote banking service partly owned by IBM, are considering using the digital certificate service.

Jeffrey R. Johnson, senior vice president of electronic commerce at Equifax, sees three broad markets for digital certificates: within enterprises; at large corporations using single-sign-on security methods; and business to business, business to consumer, or government to citizen.

"We believe it will be a dramatic-growth marketplace," Mr. Johnson said. Total certification revenue was $50 million last year, he said, and should be $1 billion by 2001.

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