For years, counties have struggled to automate one of government's most paper-intensive transactions. The recording of land documents leapt forward in the mid-1990s when imaging technology first turned paper deeds, titles and releases into digital images that could be electronically captured, indexed, stored and retrieved at will.

But the documents, so vital to property transactions, still arrive from title and mortgage companies in paper form, signed by the parties involved and witnessed by notaries to ensure the transaction is legal and binding. Even with the advent of electronic forms to automate land document creation and the Web to inexpensively link registries of deeds with lenders and title companies, there has been no manageable way to reliably identify all players involved in the exchange and recording of land documents.

But that may be changing.

Last year, a group of lenders, title companies and counties created a method for identifying parties involved in the electronic exchange and recordation of title documents. The County Land Document Recordation Exchange allows users to log on once and enter into trusted transactions over the Internet. Rather than taking weeks to process, as is the case with paper documents, these electronic title recordings take place in minutes.

Say Hi to SAML

Several factors coalesced to make this happen, most notably the security assertion markup language (SAML) standard -- a type of extensible markup language (XML) that allows users to log on to one Web site and be recognized by any affiliated organization.

In the case of land records, a large lender can use SAML to manage employees' identities as they create mortgage documents and exchange them with title companies and county deeds registries without forcing all partners to adopt the same technology for purposes of security and authentication.

SAML is an outgrowth of Web services, which allow citizens or businesses to visit one Web location and carry out a variety of transactions involving several different applications. Web services allow interactions without overhauling underlying systems, some of which might be Oracle databases running on UNIX or a custom-made application sitting on top of Windows NT.

Web services also allow computer-to-computer transactions, reducing human interaction and labor costs. But for Web services to reach their full potential in government, identification is crucial.

"The problem with identity management in the past has been that data and people are spread all over," said Rick Caccia, director of product management for Oblix Inc., an identity management software firm. "Access rights are stored in different locations. Portals have spread a Web veneer across applications without solving the identity issue."

State and local governments haven't had a cost-effective way to let users log on once and conduct a series of transactions across several agencies. Now identity can be readily established. SAML asserts a user's identity across Web services, and affiliated entities recognize the user, rather than each organization having its own centralized identity management system. SAML provides the level of trust necessary for the complex web of relationships that have risen with the adoption of Web services, according to experts.

With SAML, state and local governments no longer have to rely on expensive centralized identity management systems to identify users who operate in an increasingly decentralized online world. Instead, they can begin building federated identity management systems, in which identities are interoperable and mobile.

Federating Through Alliances

The use of SAML and the growth of federated identity management have largely come from the Liberty Alliance Project, a consortium of more than 150 organizations, including software firms and governments -- primarily national, including the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). The alliance is unusual because it is user-oriented, not technology-based, according to Simon Nicholson, chair of the Liberty Alliance business and marketing expert group and

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor