A study of Australian passport office staff by a team of psychologists showed a 15 per cent error rate in matching the person to the passport photo they were displaying.
Tests were carried out by researchers from the universities of Aberdeen, York and New South Wales, Australia.
Passport officers had to decide whether or not a photograph of an individual presented on their computer screen matched the face of a person standing in front of their desk.
In 15 per cent of trials the officers decided the photograph on their screen matched the face of the person in front of them, when in fact the photograph showed an entirely different individual.
The findings, published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, suggest a single passport photo is not sufficient for security systems to be accurate.
Professor Mike Burton, from Aberdeen University, said: “Psychologists identified around a decade ago that in general people are not very good at matching a person to an image on a security document. Familiar faces trigger special processes in our brain - we would recognise a member of our family, a friend or a famous face within a crowd, in a multitude of guises, venues, angles or lighting conditions. But when it comes to identifying a stranger it’s another story.
“The question we asked was does this fundamental brain process that occurs have any real importance for situations such as controlling passport issuing, and we found that it does.”
Dr Rob Jenkins, from York University, added: “This level of human error in Australian passport office staff really is quite striking and it would be reasonable to expect a similar level of performance at UK passport control.
“At Heathrow Airport alone, millions of people attempt to enter the UK every year. At this scale, an error rate of 15 per cent would correspond to the admittance of several thousand travellers bearing fake passports.”