Smile for the camera: facial recognition software to track church attendance

NEWS | Kaley Payne

Friday 10 July 2015

Smile for the camera. Facial recognition software is now being used by some churches in the United States to find out who’s coming to church and record attendance.

It might seem creepy, like some sort of Orwellian prediction come true, but it’s already happening in other parts of our lives.

If you’ve ever uploaded a photo to Facebook, you’ll have seen facial recognition software in action; that little box that can identify your friend in the picture. At Australian airports, facial recognition software is being rolled out to match travellers to passports. Eternity isn’t aware of any churches using the technology in Australia as yet.

Professor Brian Lovell, research director of the Advanced Security and Surveillance Research Group at the University of Queensland spoke with ABC’s Radio National about the technology being used in US churches.

“It’s a very strange use of the technology,” he said. Professor Lovell expressed privacy concerns when this type of technology starts to seep into churches.

Airports, yes. Casinos, sure. But churches? Yet, is it such a strange leap? And does it have to be as sinister as it sounds?

“Tracking attendance is one way of finding out who’s part of a connect group and how often they’re attending.”

“I’m not sure you have an entitlement to privacy, say, in an airport,” Professor Lovell told ABC presenter Michael Mackenzie. “You have to identify yourself, and passport documents and so on. But when it moves into churches and these sorts of areas, you start to wonder.”

While there are many technology products for facial recognition, one such product being used by US churches is called Churchix, an event attendance desktop application. To use the software, churches “enrol” a high quality photo of its members into a database, and then use live video, CCTV footage or photos to allow the software to cross-identify those members.

Moshe Greenshpan is the CEO of Face-Six, the company selling the Churchix software to churches. He told the UK’s International Business Times that the software could be used to monitor attendance numbers, alert church officials if some members have stopped coming to services and screen for people banned from the church. In fact, there has been interest from some churches and synagogues specifically for security purposes.

Churches have been keeping track of members and attendance for a long time. In fact, Ben Sinclair, founder and CEO of Elvanto, an Australian online church management system, says facial recognition software might just make a job churches have been doing for ages more efficient.

“It’s about the health of the church, really,” he told Eternity. “I think it’s important for church leaders to know who’s coming to their services. Church involvement is their responsibility. Tracking attendance is one way of finding out who’s part of a connect group and how often they’re attending. It’s easy for people to slip through the cracks in churches and not be followed up if they stop coming to church. It’s important to be able to keep track of where people are at.”

For smaller churches, there’s often someone responsible for sitting up the back and taking an attendance record of some sort. The over 500 churches using the Elvanto church management system might already be using the system’s tracking function to record attendance, many using it as a way to follow up new people effectively and check on those they haven’t seen in a while.

Sinclair says that for big churches with thousands of members, tracking attendance can be a huge burden on resources. “I can see how facial recognition could be a very powerful tool here,” he said. “I don’t think though that it’s something we’d embrace straight away. There are always privacy concerns with this sort of thing.”

“Fear about this software [and data collection] probably stems from a lack of communication as to why it’s being collected, but we shouldn’t let our imaginations get the best of us…”

The Australian Government has been collecting “biometric data” like fingerprints, iris scans and face prints for immigration purposes, but it has caused great concern in recent months. Questions about how the data is stored and protected have been thrown around Parliament, though more as a political hot potato than anything else.

On a smaller scale in church, lawyer and Queensland Christian Nathan Rieck says that provided there’s a clear reason why data is being collected and how it will be used, facial recognition software may not pose a huge privacy problem. Rieck is a solicitor with Neumann and Turnour Lawyers, who do a lot of work with churches.

“Fear about this software [and data collection] probably stems from a lack of communication as to why it’s being collected, but we shouldn’t let our imaginations get the best of us,” Rieck says.

“As a church, it’s our responsibility to care for one another. Being able to quickly know who’s not around – who’s sick, on holidays, struggling, etc. – is part of being a Christian and caring for people. It’s not like a Big Brother approach; it’s not ‘we’re watching and tracking your every move’.”

Rieck says that church policies around privacy and data collection are important, even without the use of facial recognition software.

“The point is open communication and crafting privacy policies in church that determine the purpose of why you’re collecting information. Of course, there’s the possibility of it being used in a less than honest way but it comes down to ensuring you have the systems in place.”

Greenshpan from Churchix isn’t convinced that all churches in the US are using the system honestly. In another interview with Fusion TV in the US, Greenshpan said that while he encourages churches to tell people that they’re using the software, he knows many don’t. But he argues that if churches are already collecting the data, it shouldn’t matter if they do it automatically with facial recognition software or by manual methods. And with the publicity Churchix has received in the US, more and more churches and other religious groups are approaching the company.

Australia’s Elvanto CEO Ben Sinclair sees potential.

“We haven’t looked into it too much here yet, but if it was something our customers wanted, and if the privacy concerns have a solution, then I don’t see why that wouldn’t be a great feature. It would save churches a lot of time.”

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