Young Man in "Old Man" Mask Boards Plane in Hong Kong
It’s kind of an amazing story. A young Asian man used a rubber mask to disguise himself as an old Caucasian man and, with a passport photo that matched his disguise, got through all customs and airport security checks and onto a plane to Canada.
The fact that this sort of thing happens occasionally doesn’t surprise me. It’s human nature that we miss this sort of thing. I wrote about it in Beyond Fear (pages 153–4):
No matter how much training they get, airport screeners routinely miss guns and knives packed in carry-on luggage. In part, that’s the result of human beings having developed the evolutionary survival skill of pattern matching: the ability to pick out patterns from masses of random visual data. Is that a ripe fruit on that tree? Is that a lion stalking quietly through the grass? We are so good at this that we see patterns in anything, even if they’re not really there: faces in inkblots, images in clouds, and trends in graphs of random data. Generating false positives helped us stay alive; maybe that wasn’t a lion that your ancestor saw, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Unfortunately, that survival skill also has a failure mode. As talented as we are at detecting patterns in random data, we are equally terrible at detecting exceptions in uniform data. The quality-control inspector at Spacely Sprockets, staring at a production line filled with identical sprockets looking for the one that is different, can’t do it. The brain quickly concludes that all the sprockets are the same, so there’s no point paying attention. Each new sprocket confirms the pattern. By the time an anomalous sprocket rolls off the assembly line, the brain simply doesn’t notice it. This psychological problem has been identified in inspectors of all kinds; people can’t remain alert to rare events, so they slip by.
A customs officer spends hours looking at people and comparing their faces with their passport photos. They do it on autopilot. Will they catch someone in a rubber mask that looks like their passport photo? Probably, but certainly not all the time.
Yes, this is a security risk, but it’s not a big one. Because while — occasionally — a gun can slip through a metal detector or a masked man can slip through customs, it doesn’t happen reliably. So the bad guys can’t build a plot around it.
One last point: the young man in the old-man mask was captured by Canadian police. His fellow passengers noticed him. So in the end, his plot failed. Security didn’t fail, although a bunch of pieces of it did.
EDITED TO ADD (11/10): Comment (from below) about what actually happened.