Churches Get Creepy Facial Recognition Software to Track Members

Churchix facial recognitionIf selling afterlife perks is your business, then getting people to believe, attend and give “voluntarily” is the whole game.

Churches just got a new way to figure out who is sleeping in on Sunday morning: facial recognition software that scans the congregation and tracks who showed up. Churchix is a product of Skakash LLC, which sells Face-Six for law enforcement, border control, and commercial applications. According to CEO Moshe Greenshpan, 30 churches have already deployed the new software and service, which could be used to target members who need a nudge or to identify potential major donors among those who attend faithfully.

Make Disciples of Every Creature

Evangelical churches often center their theology on a New Testament verse called the Great Commission: Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel every creature. They do so with good reason. Almost 40 years ago, with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene, the broad public realized that ideas can be viral self-replicators, just like genes are. A “copy-me command” is a powerful thing, whether it prompts its host to replicate a computer virus, chain mail, species or a set of religious beliefs.

Churches that grow fastest and biggest are those that put the “copy me” directive at the center of their priorities. They actively invest in recruiting, whether that means designing high quality print materials and websites, training “friendship missionaries,” launching social media campaigns, or conducting professional market analysis. By contrast with Europe, where religion often exists as a fading church-state monopoly, American churches are particularly entrepreneurial and many keep eyes open for tools that can be applied to the business of expanding membership, offerings, and market share.

In churches that are on top of their growth game, greeters stand in the lobby to make sure everyone feels welcome. Guests are asked to fill out contact cards for follow up. High-production-value materials promote both abstract theological benefits like salvation and concrete perks like childcare. Websites and social media advertise programs for young people. As in any business, good marketing is critical to sales and fiscal health, and that means keeping up with the state of the art.

High Touch, Soft Sell

Since the time of Billy Graham’s fire-and-brimstone tent revivals, many churches have moved tactically toward a more soft-sell social marketing approach. A form of evangelism called “relational apologetics” trains Christians to win converts via a slow cultivation process rather than the more traditional door-to-door witnessing or Sunday morning altar call.

One 2014 training for pastors in Seattle included a handout, “30 Ways to Create a High Touch Environment,” that included tips more commonly given to fundraising professionals or sales teams:

  • Put energy into being likeable.
  • Smile a lot.
  • Make all the friends you can.
  • Focus on their interests. Ask them questions.
  • Follow the 101% Principle. Find the 1% that you agree on and give it 100% of your effort. Find common ground.
  • Walk slowly through the crowd.
  • Return all emails and phone calls within 24 hours.
  • Remember names.

For churches investing in this kind of courtship, technology tools including customer relations management software (like Salesforce), and social media are common practice. Software that scans attendee faces during the Sunday morning service and enters them in a database is just one in a long line of innovations that churches have adopted from the sales, marketing, and fundraising sectors.

Powerful Persuasion, Questionable Product

But will it backfire? Facial recognition software is creepy, even when it’s just a matter of Facebook tagging us in pictures; and if early web response is any indication, Churchix strikes some people as particularly creepy. Why? Because the whole goal of Churchix is to help power-seeking, member-seeking, revenue-seeking cult communities manipulate people more effectively.

In my article, “Why Good Christians Do Bad Things to Win Converts,” I discuss the tremendous pressure many Christians feel to act as volunteer recruiters for their religion. To some, the end (saving people from hell) justifies almost any means. In the service of this eternal goal, well-meaning believers prey on public grade school children, lonely foreign students, people in disaster zones, and those who are poor, uneducated, and otherwise vulnerable. These behaviors, while repugnant, make sense if one actually believes in hell. Consequently, genuinely decent people can be persuaded to do things that otherwise might seem debased, like terrifying young children with threats of torture, or exploiting hunger or dementia.

Even without modern marketing tips or facial recognition software, Christianity has evolved a powerful set of recruiting tools. Christianity taps our innate moral emotions – empathy, shame, and guilt—and weaves a narrative around each. The believer’s relationship to God and Jesus exploits core cognitive capacities that evolved to help us function as social information specialists. Churches foster tribal identity and community, in which social support for insiders is a key benefit. Traditional cathedral architecture triggers a neurologically-based disorientation that contributes to the worshiper’s sense of wonder and transcendence. Modern versions of heaven and hell are based respectively on the most ostentatious palaces and the most terrifying tortures that the Iron Age mind could conceive and the medieval mind could elaborate. Small wonder, then, that trying to break free of Christianity can leave former believers struggling with a host of psychological symptoms, including, even, religious trauma syndrome.

To the extent that religion does more harm than good, adding a new set of technology assets to the mix makes the problem worse. Painfully, the most patriarchal fundamentalist variants of Christianity are often those most intent on seeking converts and gaining power in both the public sphere and individual lives.

More Power, Less Oversight

Conservative Christians are in the midst of a push to dodge public oversight of religious institutions while simultaneously increasing their ability to intrude in people’s lives. Institutions, individuals and even corporations boldly seek religious exemptions from duties and regulations aimed at protecting the public and promoting the general welfare. This includes labor laws, child protections, zoning, anti-discrimination laws, and pooled tax funds that pay for infrastructure, healthcare and emergency services. Since freedom of thought and worship has long been safeguarded by constitution and legal precedent in the U.S., recent “religious freedom” claims largely seek the freedom to do harm with impunity. Unlike for-profit businesses that are subject to consumer protection laws when they make false advertising claims or promote harmful products, religions freely make unaccountable claims; and customers who are dissatisfied or even injured have no recourse.

But coupled with this utter lack of accountability comes an insistence on being able to meddle in the private affairs of others. The Catholic bishops want to control our end-of-life options; Christian pharmacists want a say in our birth control prescriptions; trans-phobic Christian politicians want law enforcement to check who is using which bathroom; patriarchal Christian Congressmen want, as Kate Beckinsale put it in her Funny-or-Die video, to have “Republicans Get in My Vagina.”

Why would anyone be surprised, then, that churches might want the means to engage in unfettered surveillance of their members? It should be clear at this point, that in the service of God—or Greed, the boundary can be blurry—convert-hungry Christians play to the rules, even if that means getting creepy. Entering the faces of unaware members in a database and tracking attendance? That’s totally within the rules, most places. Only two American states, Illinois and Texas, have laws about getting permission before collecting a faceprint.

With the Churchix technology, congregations need only upload one clear, sharp photograph of a member before the program can begin scanning events to see if the person was there. Maybe someday soon churches can team up with Facebook and find out not only who was absent on Sunday morning, but who was where on Saturday night.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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23 Responses to Churches Get Creepy Facial Recognition Software to Track Members

  1. Hank Pellissier says:

    I will post this tomorrow!  It’s great! Hank

    Liked by 1 person

  2. persedeplume says:

    Excellent article, as usual Valerie. It seems a load of bother to go to for an idea that is as good as they claim it is. If they were giving away 100 dollar bills, or anything anyone valued, I suspect they’d end up turning people away. So why resort to manipulation and “social engineeering” for the best thing that’s ever happened to mankind?

    Like

    • Thanks for your kind words. And yes, indeed. What an odd thing our susceptibility to religion is.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Sha'Tara says:

      I can be really “slow” sometimes but I finally got your point, and it’s an excellent one. Indeed, if salvation was such a priceless and wonderful thing to get, wouldn’t everyone want it, especially in a land where being “in” this great bonanza carries perks and not persecutions? What does it say of these peddlers of religion that they have to resort to psychological warfare to get people to personally and financially support their scams? A circus, a midway at a country fair, even a gambling casino offers better odds and even pays off at times, something religion completely fails to do. And for those who would respond with, “Christians do good works” I have this to say: Anyone can do good works and many non-religious people do such without the childish need to have their ego stroked by pulpit recognition or patted on the head by some querulous paternal deity.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Sha'Tara says:

    If I had not already decided that Christianity had become a toxic form of religion and should be avoided and boycotted, this article would certainly have done it. Awesome write, in my opinion. I’m still shaking my head over the main theme: face recognition software in… CHURCH? That’s beyond sick, that’s ponerology.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. scarabus says:

    Let’s hope this backfires. I take the responsibility of citizenship seriously, which among everything else means that I put my cash contributions where my commitments lie. Every so often I get an email saying something like this:

    “Thank you, loyal supporter. You’re wonderful. According to the algorithms we’ve used to categorize previous contributors like you, your fair share amounts to $X, payable by date Y. We accept major credit cards, PayPal, and corporate checks.”

    My response? “Fuck off!” If their appeal had mentioned face recognition software? I’d not just refuse to contribute – I’d campaign actively to convince others to join me in closing our wallets, voiding our checks, and giving our credit cards an MRI obliteration.

    Like

  5. Absolutely fascinating. An interesting follow-up would be how after they catch someone, the manipulation continues. I was looking into the matter last year and found some very interesting documents from a church that’s actually in your neck of woods- they have their followers sign ‘covenants’ that basically require they become homophobic (amongst other things.)

    Like

  6. lbwoodgate says:

    “Churchix is a product of Skakash LLC, which sells Face-Six … “

    Skahash huh? That works with Cha-ching.

    Like

  7. Lowell Bushey says:

    When I was a kid, many moons ago :), I can remember my grandmother sending small donations to various religious organizations. Grandma lived on a widow’s Social Security benefit, and usually struggled to make ends meet, so her donations put a strain on an already tight budget. It was years later that I discovered many of these folks were living like royalty. Unfortunately, the problem seems to have gotten worse!

    Lowell Bushey

    Like

  8. ZCZ says:

    Thanks for the excellent article.
    This is really creepy. I wonder whether those churches inform their congregations that they are being monitored; I hope so but I suspect not.

    Like

  9. Jim Lee says:

    Great article Valerie

    Like

  10. Perry Bulwer says:

    This is the flip side of using technology to expose the frauds and abuses of religious groups and individuals, and take them down. Such technology has shone a light on some very dark behaviour in ways that were not possible before, and even ‘killed’ some cults.

    As for the Great Commission, I think Christians would be better off heeding Paul’s advice in Romans 14:22 over the controversy of dietary laws: “Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. …”

    Not only does that tell Christians to keep their faith to themselves, something Jesus also purportedly said when telling his followers not to pray in public but keep their prayers to themselves, but exposes the double-standard of the Great Commission. It’s hypocritical to say a Christian must push their faith on non-Christians but mustn’t push it on fellow Christians who follow different doctrines.

    Like

  11. Gunther says:

    I recalled some people left Sunday Mass after taking communion, and that tick off the priest so he put his volunteers at the door to stop this thing.

    Like

  12. I went to a church once that (or cult) in the 1970’s that required people who volunteered for the “Bus Ministry” to clock in! If you didn’t show you were in deep trouble with the Pastor! This meant you were in deep trouble with the Church!

    Like

    • Gunther says:

      Dear Swampstomper:

      I bet you the pastor informed the people that they were in deep trouble with God just to make them feel guilty.

      Like

  13. Pingback: Churches Get Creepy Facial Recognition Software to Track Members - Waking Times : Waking Times

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