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Passport officers no better than untrained amateurs at recognising faces, study finds

  • @SteveAConnor

Thousands of people arriving at British airports with false passports each year could escape detection because of the difficulty of matching a photo ID to a real face, a study has found.

Experienced passport control officers are no better than untrained amateurs at accurately recognising faces, especially when passport photos are more than two years old, scientists said.

In a study by the universities of York and Aberdeen, and the University of New South Wales, researchers found that passport officers in Australia made significant identity errors when trying to match faces with a passport photo.

The researchers found that in 15 per cent of tests, the officers incorrectly matched photos on a screen with the face of a person standing in front of them, when in fact the photograph was of a different individual.

When asked to match passport photos that were more than two years old, the error rate went up to 20 per cent, according to the study published in the online journal PLOS One.

“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,” said Rob Jenkins, a psychologist 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 per cent would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travellers bearing fake passports,” Dr Jenkins said.

David White of the University of New South Wales Australia, the lead author of the study, 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.”