There may be a major flaw in our global travel system. Is it with airport metal detectors or X-ray machines? Nope, those appear to be working fine. The full-body scanners, too. No, the problem is a human one: It turns out that the people tasked with issuing our IDs are be pretty bad at making sure we are who we say we are.
A new study by a team of British and Australian psychologists has determined that government employees who issue passports are not very good at detecting fraudulent photos from applicants. In fact, the study says, trained passport officials are basically as good at sussing out a fake photo as your average joe would be.
In the first trial of the study, 30 Australian passport officials were greeted by an applicant and then required to determine whether the corresponding photo in the application was, indeed, of that person. Some of the applications featured fraudulent photos. Ultimately, passport officials wrongly accepted 14 percent of the applications that used a fraudulent photograph. (Six percent of applications that featured a legitimate photograph were also rejected.)
In a separate trial, officials were presented with 38 pairs of photographs—some of the same person and others featuring mismatches—and were required to determine which sets of photos were legitimate. Similar to the first trial, “overall performance was poor,” the researchers determined. Only 70 percent of matching photographs were accurately spotted by the passport officials. A group of Australian college students performed the same exercise and spotted matching photographs at virtually the same rate as those trained to do the job. The officials did, however, catch 89 percent of the mismatched photos—a higher rate than that achieved by the university participants. (Overall, recognizing photo mismatches might have little to do with professional skill. There is “an overall tendency to perceive the photos as showing different people,” the researchers say.)
Compounding this problem is the fact that work experience doesn't really train the eye to recognize ID fraud. Older, more experienced passport officials aren't necessarily better-equipped to fraudulent passport photos.
“We interpret this [study] as strong evidence that experience alone does not improve accuracy on face matching tasks,” the research team concludes. As seen above, a passport official with 10 years’ experience had a “face matching accuracy” of less than 70 percent. Similarly low rates of legitimate identity recognition were achieved by officials with more than 20 years of experience.
But take heart, Australia (and take notice, everyone else): “[P]oor performance in face matching professionals is not confined” to the Australian Passport Office, say the study's researchers. Humans in general are bad at accurately matching the faces of strangers, they conclude.
Perhaps passport offices should consider hiring some bar bouncers onto their teams. Those guys have walls of confiscated fake IDs testifying to their skills. If they can successfully keep 20-year-olds out of your local watering hole, maybe they have some advice to lend those manning the gateways to global travel.