A high-tech subsidiary of Zions Bancorp. received the federal government's blessing Tuesday to issue certificates to the public that guarantee digital signatures, a major step toward making the Internet as foolproof as face-to-face commerce.

The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has given the go-ahead for Digital Signature Trust Co. (DST) to issue what are known as ACES, for "Access Certificates for Electronic Services," to the public on behalf of federal agencies.

What's all the excitement about?

Consider this scenario: "Could I see some ID, please?" For someone working in a convenience store, that's a mantra that must be uttered hundreds of times a day. People buying beer or cigarettes or paying by check must prove who they are.

But what about Internet commerce? Is the cyber-person you're dealing with really who he or she claims to be?

It's the toughest question Internet users face because it's relatively easy for Jane Doe to really be John Doe or Rumpelstiltskin for that matter.

Enter Salt Lake-based DST, an affiliate of Zions Bancorp. and a high-tech company that has received a lot of "buzz" during Zions' 10-month failed attempt to merge with First Security Corp. DST is one of a handful of U.S. companies pioneering systems that guarantee cyber-signatures.

Zions president and chief executive officer Harris H. Simmons is excited about DST and its potential, so much so that he allotted a half-hour of Friday's shareholder vote on the merger for Dan Buchanan, DST executive vice president, to make the first presentation many Zions shareholders had heard on what many people believe could one day become a billion-dollar company.

During Friday's meeting, at which shareholders voted down the merger with First Security, several shareholders asked Buchanan and Simmons whether they were considering taking DST public as an entity separate from Zions Bancorp. Some even admitted they wanted to get in on the ground floor of the company as a separate stock play from the bank.

Simmons said he understood where they were coming from and played it close to the vest. He conceded that DST needs capital, but he said the most likely scenario is that Zions will initiate an initial public offering on a portion of DST but keep the majority of the stock in house.

On Wall Street, Zions stock shot up $2 per share, or 4.69 percent, to $42 early Tuesday after the news was published that the GSA had approved DST's digital certificate operations.

Last fall, DST was the first business to get a three-year contract with a three-year renewal option to issue digital certificates under the ACES contract. ACES provide positive user identification in online transactions and enable federal agencies to use the Internet to improve service delivery and reduce costs.

Also Tuesday, DST launched a new information Web site, www.ACESaccess.com, designed to educate federal agencies on the benefits of the ACES contract and how to order contract services from DST and its ACES team members.

"The availability of ACES certificates marks the culmination of more than two years of development," said David Barram, GSA administrator. "This event represents another milestone in our effort to provide the American people easy electronic access to government information."

Keren Cummins, DST's vice president of government services, said the company is "pleased to be a part of the enormous strides the U.S. government is taking to create services that are more accessible to Americans, more efficient and easy to use."

Cummins said DST is now GSA approved and "open for business to agencies who want to take advantage of the opportunities the ACES contract offers."

It is difficult to overestimate the impact that DST and its competitors, such as VeriSign, the most prominent company in the field, are likely to have on Internet commerce.

Last month, VeriSign bought Network Solutions, the company that oversees corporate dot-com identities, and legislation is pending in Congress to make digital signatures carry the same legal weight as pen on paper versions.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal ran a feature column on the potential of digital IDs but noted that questions remain in the rush to embrace them.

"Are these certificates foolproof? Who should issue them? Will they drive a bigger wedge into the digital divide, marginalizing those without easy access to the Net?" the Journal asked.

Zions' DST believes it has the answers and is making a play to be a major player in what could become "the next big thing" in Internet commerce.