Group to unveil sign-on technology
By Elise Ackerman
Mercury News

A group of companies known as the Liberty Alliance will unveil a new technical specification today that will allow the companies to offer customers a way to use a single password to conduct multiple tasks on the Web.

Founded in September 2001, the Alliance seeks to provide an alternative to Microsoft's Passport service, which currently provides single-sign-on capability to millions of registered users.

The Liberty Alliance, which was spearheaded by Sun Microsystems, has grown to about 40 founding members, including United Airlines, AOL Time Warner, eBay and General Motors. The alliance is expected to announce 20 new members today, a representative said.

Bill Smith, a Sun technology director who is on the Alliance board, said the group has talked to Microsoft about participating, but the software company is still not a member. Smith said Microsoft could add an interface to Passport that would allow the two online authentication systems to work together.

Adam Sohn, a product manager for Micrsoft's .Net platform group, said Microsoft would take a look at the new specification.

Last month, Sun agreed to work with Microsoft and International Business Machines on a related technical standard called WS-Security that defines ways to build Web services -- interoperable computer programs -- so they are less vulnerable to hackers.

So far, members of the Liberty Alliance have been reluctant to use Microsoft's Passport service. Echoing the concerns of privacy groups, companies have said Passport gives Microsoft too much control over their customers' data.

The new specification will allow members to share online credentials. For example, if a customer wants to rent a car, he or she could log into the Hertz Web site using a United Mileage Plus account, provided that the customer has previously agreed to participate in the authentication service, Smith said.

The specification will be available for free through Web downloads starting this week.