Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Photo-ID Checks Placed Under Greater Scrutiny

People generally find it hard to match unfamiliar faces. Now a study of Australian passport officers suggests that security systems based on photo identification need staff who have an aptitude for this very difficult visual task.

To find out whether people who regularly carry out photo-ID checks performed better than average on a variety of face-matching tasks, Dr David White of The University of NSW tested a group of Australian passport-issuing officers. “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,” he said.

“But we observed very large individual differences. Some passport officers were 100% accurate. This suggests that security could be significantly improved by using aptitude tests to select staff for jobs involving photo-ID checks. Because of this study, the Australian Passport Office now sets face-matching tests when recruiting staff and when selecting facial comparison experts.”

Participants in the study, which has been published in PLOS ONE, included 49 staff who issue new and renewed passports in the Australian Passport Office in Sydney, and 38 university students.

In one test, the passport officers had to decide whether a photograph of a person on their computer screen matched the person standing in front of their desk. On average they made incorrect responses for 10% of decisions, with 6% of valid photos wrongly rejected and 14% of fraudulent photos wrongly accepted.

In another test they compared recent photos of people against images taken 2 years previously, and against images taken from official ID documents. Passport officers performed as well as a group of untrained students, with both groups having an error rate of about 20%.

“Given what we know about human performance in these tasks, we expect to find similar error rates in other workplaces where face-matching tests have not been used for staff selection. Certain training methods may also help to push against these limits,” White said.