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Does facial recognition software belong at church?

Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — Moshe Greenshpan insists the first church came to him.

He didn’t set out to bring facial recognition software to sacred spaces. But when a potential customer called, how could he say no?

“In a short period of time, we got about 10 different requests from churches all over the world asking us to provide them with an efficient tool to track member attendance,” said Greenshpan, CEO of Face Six, a facial recognition software company based in Israel that markets products to churches through its Churchix division.

And so his company responded, equipping the houses of worship with software that captures and organizes images of anyone on church property. He estimates that Churchix has worked with more than 200 churches to date. Around half are in the United States.

“Churches want to see who is coming and who is leaving. I think some use (the software) for security purposes,” Greenshpan said.

Although most religious leaders share these goals of tracking attendance and monitoring security threats, some object to Churchix’s high-tech approach. Facial recognition software may increase convenience and efficiency, but it also comes with unintended consequences, said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“It’s comforting to know that our (Heavenly) Father is watching, but not so comforting to know that big brother is watching,” he said.

Privacy debate

Facial recognition software offers plenty of benefits to churches that use it. The technology produces immaculate attendance records. Security threats can be carefully tracked.

“If you see a suspicious guy (on the recording), you can click on his face and give him a temporary name like ‘Suspect #1,’” Greenshpan said. “Each time a person from your watchlist is identified by your software, the software triggers an alert.”

But installing the software also thrusts churches into one of today’s biggest privacy debates. Across the country, policymakers and civil rights organizations are struggling to regulate where facial recognition software can be used and under what conditions law enforcement agencies can access it.

“We’re in a new era where your face is potentially captured in a variety of places ... and you become part of a government mugshot lineup,” said Marina Lowe, legislative and policy counsel for the ACLU of Utah.

If you’ve never committed a crime, that may not seem like a big deal. However, facial recognition technology leaves room for human error, and government use can lead to unfounded arrests and other forms of injustice, Lowe said.

“It would be an affront to our privacy to be subjected to a search when there’s no reasonable suspicion or probable cause. The same should be said of scanning our face,” she said.

Since churches are private organizations, law enforcement wouldn’t automatically have access to their saved images. But just the existence of such files is enough to worry Moore, who has studied the use of facial recognition software under authoritarian regimes.

“There are so many potentials for abuse with facial recognition technology,” he said.

For example, in China, the government uses artificial intelligence to track how often citizens attend church. Involvement in a faith community is viewed as a potential threat to someone’s allegiance to the state, and regular churchgoers in China can face consequences at work or school.

“One doesn’t have to imagine the dystopia that could come about. You could get in a plane and go see it,” Moore said.

Additional risks

The U.S. is much more committed to religious freedom than China, so it’s unlikely American officials would ever use facial recognition software at churches the same way. However, installing high-tech cameras above the sanctuary door still comes with risks, Moore said.

For example, facial recognition software could change a church’s image, making it seem more like a cold, depersonalized space than a place of refuge, he said.

It’s not wrong for churches to track who comes and goes, “but facial recognition technology seems to be a creepy way to go about doing that,” Moore said.

In general, surveillance technology disrupts people’s natural habits, putting them on edge, Lowe said.

“People’s behavior changes when they feel like they’re being watched,” she said. “It changes our ability to feel like we’re free.”

Church members might be less likely to check in with one another if they know a computer is monitoring who appears at each service, Moore said. Someone who is concerned about their privacy might stop attending church altogether.

Rather than using facial recognition technology, “I think we should go in the other direction and actually know one another within our congregations well enough to know when someone is missing,” Moore said.

Greenshpan said privacy concerns are overblown. Churches regularly publish photo directories of their members, and using cameras to track attendance isn’t very different from that, he said.

“People don’t really understand what they’re afraid about,” he said.

Moore admitted that he could be overreacting, since he’s only just begun to think through what the future could hold. However, he said it’s good to err on the side of caution, especially where invasive technology is concerned.

“Technology is advancing quickly, often in really helpful ways. But we should think about where it ultimately will lead,” Moore said. “The stakes are high when it comes to the church.”

It will be up to religious communities to lead ethical reflection, since companies like Churchix have no plans to slow down.

“Our vision is to allow anyone with a camera to use facial recognition,” Greenshpan said.