Are Churches Playing Big Brother?


The Times today reported that some churches are using facial recognition technology to track attendance by their members.

As yet only a small number of churches are using CCTV cameras in this way, matching photos with their internal databases using platforms like Churchix, a surveillance software system devised in Israel. Churches in the US, Portugal, Spain, India and Indonesia are using it and convenience may lead to the practice becoming more widespread.

Throughout history, churches have arguably been among the earliest adopters of many new technologies. This was true with the printing press, radio, networked television and, more recently, smartphone apps, which are now used widely by church goers for personal instruction and devotion. There are, however, three major points of concern when it comes to churches using facial recognition technology. 

I’m no Luddite – I’m a social futurist; I believe that new technologies are welcome, provided that we think carefully about how we use them. Some new technologies are helping churches to build closer relationships with their people; but church leaders shouldn’t think that all change is necessarily progress!

The first concern is that facial recognition technology can so easily be used without the knowledge or permission of church members and visitors. Even if regular churchgoers provide their consent, the same cameras are trained on people who may be visiting for the first time and are unaware that they are being photographed. 

The ethics of privacy provide a huge area of debate within the mainstream marketplace today. Social media platforms like Facebook encourage us all to become completely open in a sort of cult of transparency, yet studies show that growing numbers of us are concerned about who knows what about us online - and who owns that data. Churches should be leading the call for greater protections on privacy, as part of their role in shaping ethical standards. They should not be adding to the sense that we under surveillance everywhere we go.

Another concern relates to what happens with all the data collected. Are churches really able to guarantee that this information will remain secure; that it will not find its way into the hands of less scrupulous people who may use it for ID theft and the like? Even governments have trouble credibly making that guarantee; how can churches hope to be believed if they make such a pledge? Who within the church structure operates as watchdog over how the personal data is used? And to whom does that person give account?

The final concern relates to other aspects of the follow-up process. If keeping track of attendance has become an automated process, what is to stop the next steps from being automated as well? Members of these churches may very shortly face a situation where personal follow-up is conducted without any human agency at all. Computers will note that someone has not attended for a while, then automatically send an e-mail or phone message to that individual. (This may, of course, already be happening in some churches.)

In some countries, road speed checks and the issuing of fines are conducted along these lines. If you speed, a machine registers the infraction and another machine sends you an automated e-mail with details of your fine. A third machine will then receive and log your payment. There is no human element involved anywhere in the process – except perhaps if you take the matter to court. The fact that one can’t argue a penalty – or readily appeal it – potentially contributes to a growing sense of mistrust between local authorities and their citizens. Without trust, organised societies breakdown and anarchy and hyper-individualism are the result.

Should churches move beyond recording faces to automating follow-up, how would that provide the comfort and encouragement people may need in times of stress or change? Vulnerable people don’t need to be made to feel less significant because they’re receiving automated contacts.

Churches preach, rightly, that individuals count. They should uphold that belief, by treading very carefully when it comes to infringing on privacy.

Hear Mal Fletcher's radio interview on this issue

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