August 20, 2014 -
New research suggests that passport issuing officers are no less successful at identifying a fake passport photo than the average individual. In its study of Australian passport office staff, a team of psychologists from Aberdeen, York, and Sydney found a 15 percent error rate in matching the individual to the passport photo they were displaying.
The study shows that a single passport photo does not provide enough verification for a security checkpoint to truly be accurate, suggesting that perhaps passports ought to have multiple images of a person.
“Psychologists identified around a decade ago that in general people are not very good at matching a person to an image on a security document,” said Professor Mike Burton, Sixth Century Chair in Psychology at the University of Aberdeen. “Familiar faces trigger special processes in our brain – we would recognize a member of our family, a friend or a famous face within a crowd, in a multitude of guises, venues, angles or lighting conditions. But when it comes to identifying a stranger it’s another story.”
In the latest study, researchers asked passport officers whether a photograph of an individual displayed on their computer screen matched the face of the very person standing in front of them.
In 15 percent of trials the officers said that the photograph on their screen correctly matched the face of the person, when in fact, the photograph was of an entirely different person than the person in front of them.
“This level of human error in Australian passport office staff really is quite striking, and it would be reasonable to expect a similar level of performance at U.K. passport control,” said Dr. Rob Jenkins from the Department of Psychology at the University of York. “At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to enter the U.K. every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15 percent would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travelers bearing fake passports.”
U.K. passports are valid for a 10-year period and as a result officers also have to take into account changes in a person’s appearance over time.
The passport officers were then asked to match current face photos to images taken two years ago or to government photo-ID documents such as passports and driving licenses, which resulted in error rates of up to 20 percent. These results were basically the same as when researchers tested untrained student volunteers.
“While it might have been expected that years of training and experience would have improved passport officer performance, our study showed this was not the case. Passport officers were no more accurate than university students,” said Dr. David White of the University of New South Wales in Australia, lead author on the paper.
“Our conclusion would be that focusing on training security staff may be ploughing efforts in the wrong direction,” said Professor Burton. “Instead we should be looking at the selection process and potentially employing tests such as the ones we conducted in the study to help us recruit people who are innately better at this process. Because of this study, the Australian Passport Office now set face matching tests when recruiting staff and when selecting facial comparison experts.”
The study adds to University of Aberdeen led research which is trying to determine if security measures would be enhanced if passports displayed more than one image of the individual.
By working with worldwide passport controls, the researchers hope that the work will eventually lead to future improvements in security systems.