TIME National Security

Study: Passport Officers Struggle to Spot Fake Photo IDs

Officers failed to recognize faces were different from ID photos 15% of the time in a test situation

Officials charged with issuing passports mistakenly accepted photo identification displaying a different person 14% of the time, according to the results of a study published Monday.

The study asked officials to accept or reject someone based on whether a displayed photo matched the person before them. They mistakenly accepted someone with a different photo displayed almost 15% of the time and mistakenly rejected someone whose real photo was displayed 6% of the time.

“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,” said Rob Jenkins, a psychology researcher at the University of York and study co-author.

Officers fared even worse on a separate test that asked them to match a current photo with identification photos taken two years prior. They matched the photos incorrectly 20% of the time, a figure equivalent to the performance of an untrained control group.

The study, which tested 27 Australian passport officers, found that training had little influence on officers’ ability to identify faces on passports correctly. The best way to address faulty identification is to hire people who are innately better at identifying faces, researchers concluded.

“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,” said University of Aberdeen professor Mike Burton, a study co-author. “It seems that it is a fundamental brain process and that some people are simple more adept at it than others.”

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