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Firms Offer Secure Web ID Services


SAN FRANCISCO — Sun Microsystems Inc. and other companies will begin rolling out services today that allow Web surfers to sign on to one secure site and then travel to other Internet locations without reentering their information.

The identity authentication services are based on public specifications released Monday by the Liberty Alliance, a coalition including Sun, AOL Time Warner Inc., MasterCard International Inc., General Motors Corp. and dozens of other firms.

The group was formed last year in response to Microsoft Corp.'s Passport service, which stores such user information as names and credit card numbers to smooth electronic commerce.

Use of Passport is required for Microsoft's free Hotmail e-mail and is promoted heavily in the Windows XP operating system. Microsoft plans to use Passport as a stepping stone to its developing system for more advanced Web services.

Many financial institutions and other companies have been less than enthusiastic about Passport because Microsoft charges them, holds on to all the information and might compete with merchants it is connecting to consumers. And Microsoft's system is proprietary, so that businesses don't know everything about how it works.

Sun's new service launches with initial customers Wells Fargo & Co. and a Sony Corp. site for soap opera fans. The first programs ease consumer surfing within those domains, instead of allowing a visitor to take an established identity elsewhere without re-registering.

Wells Fargo already has a single sign-on for its Internet banking, brokerage and other services, so consumers might not notice a difference. But the Sun product "gives us increased efficiency internally" and should reduce administrative costs, said Wells Fargo Senior Vice President Eric Castain.

Wells Fargo, which doesn't accept Passport's authentication system, anticipates using future services with the Liberty Alliance specifications to allow surfers to visit other secure sites, Castain said.

Novell Inc. said it would release a Liberty-based service this year for large companies, so that employees can reach different internal programs after signing in once. RSA Security Inc. said it would ship a remote-access service using the same standards next year.

Liberty applications for consumers also are planned and will compete more directly with Passport.

At United Airlines, technology executive Rob Robless said that by next year, Web visitors making plane reservations should be able to make car and hotel reservations without reentering data. That step could double the number of people buying more than just plane tickets when they visit, he said.

Under the guidelines issued Monday, consumers keep the right to say how much of their personal information is shared with each site and whether they want to share the information on each successive visit or just once.

Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn said more pieces of Passport's workings are getting published and that other parts soon would be submitted to neutral standard-setting bodies.

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