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Researchers Discover Vulnerabilities In Passport Security Checks

August 20, 2014
Image Caption: This is an example of a person-to-photo test: the passport officers had to decide if a person facing them was the same person as pictured on an identity card. In this case, he is. Credit: David White -- CC BY SA

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

Basing your security system on photo identification checks could be a big mistake, unless you hire staff members who specifically have an aptitude for matching unfamiliar faces, according to the authors of a new PLOS ONE study.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen, the University of York and the University of New South Wales studied Australian passport office workers and found a 15 percent error rate in matching an individual to the passport photo they were displaying. In real world scenarios, the study authors said that this error rate would translate to several thousand travelers being admitted, despite being in possession of fake passports.

“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,” Professor Mike Burton of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Psychology said in a statement.

“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,” he added. “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 one of the tests that was part of the experiment, 49 passport officers were asked to determine if a photograph of an individual presented on their computer screen matched the face of a person standing in front of their desk. In 15 percent of the trials, the officers claimed that the picture on their computer screen matched the face of the individual standing in from of them, when it was actually an image of an entirely different person.

“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 Dr. Rob Jenkins of 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 percent would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travelers bearing fake passports.”

In the UK, passports are valid for a period of 10 years, which means that officers have to account for changes to a person’s appearance over that time. So in a second test, the passport officers were asked to match current face photos to images taken two years ago, or to genuine photo-ID documents such as passports and driver’s licenses. On this task, the error rate increased to 20 percent, equal to that of a group of 38 untrained university students who volunteered to take part in this portion of the experiment.

“We found the passport officers did not perform better, despite their experience and training. They made a large number of errors, just like the untrained university students we tested,” said lead author Dr. David White. “But we observed very large individual differences. Some passport officers were 100 percent accurate. This suggests security could be significantly improved by using aptitude tests to select staff for jobs involving photo-ID checks.”

“Findings from our studies show that what really matters when you learn to recognize someone is the range of pictures you see – all the possible ways a person can look in photos,” added Professor Burton. “It seems strange that we expect a single passport shot to encompass a person and allow us to consistently recognize them… Could there in fact be an argument for our passports to contain a multitude of images, taken at different angles, in different lighting and formats? This is certainly something our study is examining.”


Source: redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online



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