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How a smile can protect us from passport, ID theft

Passport photos: you usually hate them or you hate them less so, or if you’re really lucky, you actually like your headshot.


The key, many would think, is a nice smile – and most people naturally smile anyway.


But it seems a big grin wouldn’t just be better for the appearance of our passport pics; it may also aid in reducing identity theft.



A University of York study published in the British Journal of Psychology has revealed that it is easier for a person to identify you when you’re showing a toothy smile than a straight face.


According to the British Psychological Society (BPS), previous research had proven the difficulty of matching a person with their photo, even for people who do it for a living.


But researchers at York wanted to investigate whether an open smile could help improve accuracy in facial recognition – specifically, matching two images of the same person as well as distinguishing between two similar looking people.


The study involved 40 participants comparing pairs of passport-like images with neutral facial expressions, closed-mouth smiles, and open-mouth smiles.


At the end of the study, it was revealed that participants had more success matching images when open-mouth smiles were involved, both when confirming someone’s identity (9% more accurate) and distinguishing them from others (7% more accurate).


“There are a number of important jobs that required accurate face matching, such as a border control officer, but success rates tend to be worryingly low where there is still a reliance on a human to do the job rather than facial recognition technology,” researcher Mila Mileva said.


“Our research suggests that replacing the neutral expression we usually use when taking identification photographs with an open-mouth smile can make face matching easier.


“We also had success in showing that an open-mouth smile can help people to tell two similar looking but different people apart, which is critical when checking photo identification.”


Among other requirements, the Australian Passport Office asks travellers to show a neutral expression, “not smiling, laughing or frowning”, when taking a passport photo as this is the easiest way for its facial recognition technology to match you to your image.


But whenever we arrive elsewhere, we still depend on humans to identify us. So perhaps we should be allowed to smile along the way.


Written by: Mark Harada
Published: 25 June 2018

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