Matching a Person’s Face With an ID Photo Seems To Be Something of a Crap Shoot

People fail to make a correct identification up to 20 percent of the time, at least in the lab

Photo: Mattes

As many under-21s know, it's not difficult to pass as someone else using a false ID, even if the photo is not the same. But are they getting away with because bouncers don't actually care? Or is it a problem with the technology—the ID picture? Could that same fallibility extend to more serious environments, such as airport security checks? 

Researchers decided to investigate just how good average people are at matching a person's face with his or her ID photo. They recruited volunteers to look at more than 200 pairs of recent photos of adults and attempt to correctly identify whether a college ID photo, taken seven years earlier, was the same person. The researchers also mixed up the frequency of the fakes, varying the pairs from 50 percent fakes to 10 percent fakes, Z News describes. 

On average, people failed to call out a fake 10 to 20 percent of the time. But they did worse when the fake IDs showed up less frequently—even when the researchers reminded the volunteers to take their time. Different lighting and angles, new makeup styles, haircuts, or weight changes were enough to trip people up.

These experiments took place in the lab, not at a bar or an airport, but the researchers point out that that environment is actually ideal compared to the outside world, where crying babies, an overdue break or an endless list of other factors and distractions might further compound an security agent's ability to discern fake IDs from real ones. However, the volunteers in this study were not professionals, so we can still hope that TSA agents would be better at this activity than the average person. 

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