Face it: Not everyone can spot a fake passport

"At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to enter the UK every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15 percent would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travelers bearing fake passports." says Rob Jenkins. (Credit: Amanda Wood/Flickr)

Accurate face matching is central to a passport officer’s job—and vital to border security. But pairing an actual face to a picture is not necessarily something than can be taught.

A new study of Australian passport office staff reveals a 15 percent error rate in matching a person to a passport photo. In real life, such a degree of inaccuracy would correspond to several thousand travelers using fake passports.


The findings add to earlier research that suggests one passport photo is not sufficient for security systems to be accurate and recommends that security measures would be enhanced if passports carried several different facial images.

“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,” says Mike Burton, professor of 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.

“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.”

Wrong answer

In one test, passport officers were asked if a photograph of a person on a computer screen matched the face of a person standing in front of them. In 15 percent of the trials, officers said  that the photo did match, when in fact, it was of a different person.

“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,” says Rob Jenkins of the psychology department at the University of York.

“At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to enter the UK every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15 percent would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travelers bearing fake passports.”

UK Passports are valid for 10 years and should take into account changes in a person’s appearance over time.

Recognize a face

In a second test, 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 licenses.

Error rates on this task were 20 percent—a level of performance that was no different to a group of untrained student volunteers who were also tested.

“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,” says David White of the University of New South Wales Australia, and lead author of the paper that is published in PLOS ONE. “Passport officers were no more accurate than university students.”

“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,” Burton says. “It seems that it is a fundamental brain process and that some people are simply 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 comparison experts.”

Better technology

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.

Researchers say they hope that the study—which involves collaboration with worldwide passport controls—could lead to changes in how security systems operate in the future.

“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,” Burton says.

“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 recognize 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 recognize 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.”

Source: University of York