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Visa, MC pick e-commerce firms

Visa and MasterCard pick technology providers for a crucial element of the Secure Electronic Transactions protocol for the Internet.

Visa and MasterCard today picked technology providers for a crucial element of the Secure Electronic Transactions protocol, which is designed to ensure safe credit card transactions over the Internet.

CertCo, a New York-based spin-off of Bankers Trust, and Spyrus, which makes hardware security tokens, will provide the technology for the "root certificate authority" under SET.

The top-level "root CA" system is an integral part of SET's security infrastructure. It represents the ultimate authority for banks, credit card issuers, and other certificate authorities to issue digital IDs that let buyers and sellers conduct SET credit card transactions. Though important to financial institutions, the "root CA" will be largely invisible to merchant and cardholders.

CertCo and Spyrus will provide the technology for the system, but they won't actually function as a certification authority. Visa and MasterCard are jointly acting as the "root CA" for various SET trials now under way, and Visa spokesman Ryan Mikolasik said the card companies hope to select a permanent operator by mid-July.

"This validates our business proposition in a serious way. It puts us in prime time," said Larry Walker, CertCo's CEO. The company provides security products for electronic commerce, primarily to financial institutions. It also provided technology in Utah for a court system that lets attorneys file documents electronically.

The card companies said the Spyrus-CertCo team was picked because it was the most flexible and secure system offered by various bidders. Names of other bidders were not released, but VeriSign and GTE CyberTrust have been rumored to be in the running.

Under the contract, a "root key"--a unique encrypted code that will underlie all SET certificates--will be generated by the high-level CA due to be named this summer. That key will be used in a digital signature that will authorize Visa, MasterCard, and other brands the authority to issue SET certificates.

The selection of CertCo and Spyrus was endorsed by three other credit card companies: American Express, Japan's JCB, and Novus, which issues Discover cards. Those brands also have been admitted to a SET steering committee.

The first release of the SET protocol will be published May 31. Visa's Mikolasik said an SET "mark" or logo will be released in August for software companies and merchants that support the SET credit card protocol. Visa expects SET transactions to become noticeable by October.

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