Something To Consider About Airport Safety

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Anger_Opener_Tyler_Spangler_paginatedIllustrated by Tyler Spangler.
Do you hate your passport photo? Well, it turns out it might not matter that much — a new study suggests that passport officers are surprisingly bad at recognizing faces in passports and in general.

The study was published yesterday in PLOS ONE and examines the degree to which passport officers in Sydney, Australia can match government photo IDs to real, live human beings. The 30 officers involved had all received training in comparing real faces with their corresponding ID-photo images. But, this training didn't hold up when the officers were required to check the photos of 34 volunteer cardholders. Each volunteer was given an ID card with a number on it; an officer entered the number into a computer, which then displayed a photo that was either of the volunteer or of someone who looked similar. But, neither the officer nor the volunteer knew whether or not they were given a fake ID photo. Officers then had 10 seconds to look at the photo and decide whether or not it was real. Results showed that they incorrectly rejected 6% of the volunteers' photo IDs and incorrectly accepted 14%.

In a second experiment, 27 passport officers and 38 randomly-chosen University of New South Wales students matched photos of the volunteers from the first experiment (one from the volunteer's actual photo ID as well as a second, recent pic). This time, the officers and the control subjects (the students) had to decide whether the two photos were of the same person or not. The officers took much longer than the students to complete the trials, and only had a slightly higher accuracy to show for it.

And, to top it all off, a third experiment showed that officers performed no better than the general population on a standard face-matching task. For this, the officers viewed 40 pairs of photos, half of which were of the same face; the other half were different faces. The passport officers scored an average of 79.2%, almost identical to the established 81.3% average for the rest of the population. And, their number of years of experience had no effect on their results.

So, what to do about passport officers that aren't so hot at recognizing faces or fake passports? The study authors suggest either re-working the current training process for passport officers, or even hiring officers based on their ability to match and recognize faces.

Because passports have so many security features other than the photo, fakers are unlikely to try and create a phony from scratch; instead, they'll go after existing passports belonging to people whose photos they're able to pass off as their own. And, the authors point out, looking at photo ID is still the most prevalent means of confirming someone's identity. So, until passport-officer training gets revamped — or face-recognition robots take over the process — it looks like we're stuck with halfhearted examinations of our half-awake Walgreens shots.