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BiometricsPhoto-ID security checks flawed: Study

Published 19 August 2014

Passport issuing officers are no better at identifying whether someone is holding a fake passport photo than the average person, new research has revealed. A pioneering study of Australian passport office staff revealed a 15 percent 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 travelers bearing fake passports.

Passport issuing officers are no better at identifying whether someone is holding a fake passport photo than the average person, new research has revealed.

A pioneering study of Australian passport office staff by a team of psychologists from Aberdeen, York, and Sydney, revealed a 15 percent 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 travelers bearing fake passports.

A University of Aberdeen release reports that the findings were published Monday in PLOSone.

They add to University of Aberdeen led research funded by a £1.5 million 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 a multitude of images of a person.

Professor Mike Burton, Sixth Century Chair in Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, 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 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.”

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 percent 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.