Passport issuing officers are no better at identifying if someone is holding a fake passport photo than the average person.
A pioneering study of Australian passport office staff by a team of psychologists from Aberdeen, York and Sydney, revealed a 15% error rate in matching the person to the passport photo they were displaying.
In real life this degree of inaccuracy would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travellers bearing fake passports.
The findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Professor Mike Burton at the University of Aberdeen says 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.
“Familiar faces trigger special processes in our brain – we would recognise a member of our family, a friend or a famous face within a crowd, in a multitude of guises, venues, angles or lighting conditions,” he says
“But when it comes to identifying a stranger it’s another story.
“The question we asked was does this fundamental brain process that occurs have any real importance for situations such as controlling passport issuing – and we found that it does.”
The ability of Australian passport officers, for whom accurate face matching is central to their job and vital to border security, was tested in the latest study which involved researchers from the Universities of Aberdeen, York and New South Wales Australia.
In one test, passport officers had to decide whether or not a photograph of an individual on their computer screen matched the face of a person standing in front of their desk.
It was found that on 15% of trials the officers decided that the photograph on their screen matched the face of the person standing in front of them, when in fact, the photograph showed an entirely different person.
In a second test, the passport officers were asked to match current face photos to images taken two years ago or to genuine photo-ID documents including passports and driving licences.
Error rates on this task rose to 20%, a level of performance no different to untrained student volunteers who were also tested.
Dr David White of the University of New South Wales Australia, lead author on the paper said: “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.”
The researchers say focusing on training security staff may be ploughing efforts in the wrong direction.
Instead, people who are good at the process should be recruited.
The Australian Passport Office now has face matching tests when recruiting staff and when selecting facial comparison experts.
The study of Australian passport office staff adds to research being conducted at the University of Aberdeen asking if security measures would be enhanced if passports carried more than one image of a person.
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