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Security Agents Often Miss When Passports Don't Match Faces

Researchers found that passport screeners have an error rate of about 15 percent when they're evaluating whether faces match passport photos. i

Researchers found that passport screeners have an error rate of about 15 percent when they're evaluating whether faces match passport photos. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Researchers found that passport screeners have an error rate of about 15 percent when they're evaluating whether faces match passport photos.

Researchers found that passport screeners have an error rate of about 15 percent when they're evaluating whether faces match passport photos.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Fake and stolen passports have become a huge international problem — and it turns out security agents, who should be able to catch them, have blind spots like the rest of us.

How big is the problem? Interpol estimates that 9,800 people tried to cross into Europe with false documents in 2013. Since 2002, more than 40 million passports have been reported lost or stolen. Earlier this year, as the world obsessed over the bizarre disappearance Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, suspicion turned to two Iranians traveling with stolen European documents. They were eventually ruled out as suspects.

You might expect security agents would ace matching faces to documents, but it turns out they're no better than the rest of us. When a team of international researchers tracked how well Australian passport officers could match a person's face to his or her passport photo, they logged a 15 percent "error rate" — about what you'd expect from civilians. (Why Aussies? They were the first to give the researchers access, says Mike Burton, an author of the study and a psychology professor at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.) Burton also heads the Aberdeen Face Lab, which studies perception and facial recognition. It has started looking at other nations' stranger perception too. He declined to name where, since the data haven't yet been published, but so far, initial tests show similar results.

Try It Yourself

The Glasgow Face Matching Test screens a person's ability to match faces. It was developed by Burton and his crew, who posted it free online for scientific study purposes; if you download the materials, you too can try your hand at matching. Would you do better than the average passport agent?

How big a deal is that 15 percent? It would mean "several thousand travelers bearing fake passports" at Heathrow Airport each year, psychologist Rob Jenkins of the University of York said in a press release about the study (he did not reply to attempts to reach him).

The researchers suggest hiring agents who have a natural talent for matching faces correctly — screen the screeners, Burton says. Electronics may hold some answers too, the researchers say. U.S. "e-Passport" chips are supposed to help cut down on fraud, with the (legal) passport holder's information also stored on the chip. This fall, the Transportation Security Administration will test an $85 million Credential Authentication Technology system that electronically scans travel documents to check legitimacy, and matches them with travel itineraries.

The TSA, for its part, uses what it calls an "intelligence-driven, risk-based approach to transportation security," says TSA spokesman Ross Feinstein. "An integral part of that strategy is using advanced technology in passenger screening." But such technology remains somewhat nascent. For now, facial recognition still largely relies on humans.

You can follow Anne Miller @annemillermedia

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