Passport issuing officers are no better at telling if
someone is holding a fake passport photo than the average person, new research
A pioneering study of Australian passport office staff by a
team of psychologists from York, Aberdeen 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
These findings add to current research funded by a
£1.5million European Research Council grant that indicates one passport photo
is not sufficient for security systems to be accurate.This work suggests security measures would be enhanced if
passports carried multiple images of a person.
Professor Mike Burton said: “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. 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 presented 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.
Dr Rob Jenkins from the Department of Psychology at the
University of York said: “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 UK passport control.
“At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to
enter the UK every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15% would correspond
to the admittance of several thousand travellers bearing fake passports.”
UK 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. In a second test, the passport officers were asked to match
current face photos to images taken 2 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
that was no different to a group of untrained student volunteers who were also
tested. Dr David White of the University of New South Wales, 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.”
Professor Burton added: “This study has importantly
highlighted that the ability to be good at matching a face to an image is not
necessarily something that can be trained.It seems that it is a fundamental brain process and that
some people are simple more adept at it than others.
“Our conclusion would be that focusing on training security
staff may be ploughing efforts in the wrong direction. 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
The study of Australian passport office staff adds to
research being conducted which investigates whether security
measures would be enhanced if passports carried more than one image of a
It’s hoped the research – which involves collaboration with
worldwide passport controls – could lead to changes in how security systems
operate in the future. Professor Burton continued: “This separate study is
examining if having a multitude of images taken under different conditions
presented on a passport would increase precision in facial recognition.What has been missing in the development of security
technology so far is the fact that one photograph does not give us a true
representation.There is a great emphasis on a passport image to fit all
purposes but people often comment on the fact that their passport photo looks
nothing like them? This observation
turns out to be true when tested scientifically.
"Findings from our studies show that what really matters
when you learn to recognise someone is the range of pictures you see – all the
possible ways a person can look in photos.It seems strange that we expect a single passport shot to
encompass a person and allow us to consistently recognise them. If we are stuck
on the concept that a good representation of a person is achieved through one
image, then we are setting ourselves up for errors.
Could there in fact be an argument for our passports to
contain a multitude of images, taken at different angles, in different lighting
and formats? This is certainly something our study is examining.Unlocking the fundamental brain process that occurs when we
see someone we know is the key here."
“If we can establish this then we can look at how we can
apply this knowledge to create new technology, examine how recruitment of
security staff could be enhanced and if there is potential for training
techniques to support these staff.”