Thousands of travellers holding fake passports could be entering countries freely as a new study suggests that officers are no better than the average person at recognising whether a passport photo does not match the person displaying it.
A sample of Australian passport office staff were shown a photo of a person on a screen and then asked if that was the same as the person in front of them.
In 15 per cent of the cases the staff replied yes, although the person in the photo was a completely different individual.
The study, conducted by researchers at the universities of Aberdeen, York and New South Wales, Australia and published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, suggests that a single passport photo may not be enough for security systems to be accurate.
Dr Rob Jenkins, from York University, said that the level of human error at the Australian passport office was ‘striking’ and that it could be reasonable to expect the same level of error at UK passport control.
He said: ‘At this scale, an error rate of 15 per cent would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travellers bearing fake passports.’
Professor Mike Burton, from Aberdeen University, said psychologists had identified around a decade ago that in general people were not very good at matching a person to an image on a security document – but this research proved that this also applied to passport controls.
Burton said: ‘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.’
In a second test, the passport officers were asked to match current face photos to images taken two years ago. Error rates on this task rose to 20 per cent – the same result as a group of untrained student volunteers who were also tested.
Prof Burton said that being able to face-match people could be an innate skill rather than something that people can learn with training.
He said: ‘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.’