Could Big Brother be coming to a church near you? One software company is now providing churches with facial recognition software to better track who shows up at their worship services.
Manually tracking attendance is a chore for some churches, especially large ones that have multiple services and entrances. Now a company called Churchix provides facial recognition software, which captures someone’s face through a photo or video and then identifies it by comparing it with those in a database of photos. Now used by Facebook and dating apps and at traffic stoplights, the software is becoming more common in every day interactions.
Moshe Greenshpan, founder & CEO of the Israeli facial recognition company Skakash, said its subsidiary Face-Six’s clients include airports, law enforcement agencies and casinos. After an international church asked the company for a similar service, they decided to launch Churchix, a company designed to help churches specifically, in February.
Greenshpan said about 40 churches have signed on, including eight in the United States, although he declined to name any of them. He also declined to say how much the churches pay for the software. He said the churches that use the software range in membership from 100 to 3,000.
A church will upload a database of photos of its members, and they usually use security cameras they already have in place to match the video with existing photos. Churches could use it to track regular attendance or see who’s missing.
“It’s simple to see if a member isn’t attending three or four events. Then they can give the member a call and say something like, ‘See you on Sunday,'” Greenshpan said.
It could also be used as a tool for the church to ask for donations, Greenshpan said. “If they see a member who is regularly attending events, they could feel more comfortable giving them a call and asking for a donation,” he said. Or it can blacklist someone who might have caused trouble in the past, such a disruptive visitor.
Greenshpan said he usually sees two kinds of responses to the idea of facial recognition software in churches. Most churches already keep track of attendance in some way, so some church officials are enthusiastic when they discover an automated system. But many members, Greenshpan said, feel their privacy might be compromised. He advises churches to ask members to register so the software is transparent, but most churches using Churchix are using the software without the knowledge of their members, he said.
“We think facial recognition is going to be normal,” Greenshpan said. “And as the technology improves, it’s becoming cheaper.”
Most churches have some database to keep track of their members, said Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute on Religion, who focuses on megachurch research. When he asked congregations of all sizes and religious traditions in 2005, 72 percent of churches used some software to track membership engagement.
When Thumma asked the same question in a national survey of megachurches in 2005, 99 percent of megachurches said they have a computerized database that holds the names and addresses of members or attendees, compared with 95 percent of churches that had a congregational Web site. Many of the member databases include photos, Thumma said.
Thumma said he hasn’t come across any megachurches that use facial recognition software, but most have security cameras and people who are trained to get a sense of how many people are in the church. Part of the appeal of a megachurch is that you can walk in without people noticing, he said.
“I don’t think that kind of facial recognition software would play well at all with members because it strikes as ‘Big Brother,'” Thumma said. “While God sees everything, we’re not sure we want our pastor to be omniscient.”
Two of the challenges facing many megachurches is finding ways to create accountability, a sense of belonging or responsibility to a church, and creating a sense of intimacy so that the church understands individual needs and how people are progressing in their faith. Most megachurches, Thumma said, would probably prefer not to invade privacy by using the software at worship services and instead create smaller groups and ministries to get to know parishioners and their habits.
“The larger the crowd, the easier it is to have the permeable boundary, you can slip in and more or less be anonymous,” Thumma said. “For the staff, it’s always a challenge because you don’t want your people just to remain spectators.”
Most churches that have databases track whether members are in small groups, youth groups, ministries and other areas of the church. Church officials train people who are in charge of Sunday school classes or a homeless ministry to track who shows up. The information is often added to a larger database so people aren’t just mentally keeping track of church engagement.
“If a congregation doesn’t have those kinds of often technologically-advanced tools, how do they know if the 5,000 or 10,000 people who show up are doing more than just coming for a Sunday morning show?” Thumma said. “You can’t cull the spiritual maturity of hundreds of people in your head.”
As technology changes so quickly, what once might have seemed strange will become normal. In the 1990s, the idea of church marketing, or targeting specific people through outreach or advertisements, was seen as strange but now is quite common, said Kent Shaffer, founder of Openchurch.com, a Web site that encourages digital Christian collaboration. Giving Facebook your personal information or seeing personalized Google advertisements was initially seen as an invasion of privacy but is now accepted.
Still, Shaffer said that facial recognition software will face specific challenges among churchgoers.
“With the concept of facial recognition software is an underlying subconscious hunch that this is wrong because it’s an inauthentic substitute for one-on-one relationships,” Shaffer said. “Imagine, ‘And then the apostles walked into the assembly, and their faces were scanned.’ It seems like it misses the authenticity.”
Public opinion, however, shifts pretty quickly as people adapt to new ways of life, like watching a pastor give a sermon on a big screen.
“What once seemed shocking will gradually seem normal,” he said. “Ultimately, we’re going to see this type of technology become far more prominent.”