In my work as a privacy lawyer, I’ve become slightly desensitized to the pervasive privacy invasions that we have learned to live with—the fact that Facebook is well-aware of my love of makeup and will constantly remind me of “cool new eyeshadows to try” is something I don’t even think about anymore. However, there is a new technology threatening privacy that struck me as particularly appalling.
A company called Churchix provides churches with facial recognition software “designed for Church administrators and event managers who want to save the pain of manually tracking their members attendance to their events.” The software allows users to “receive demographic data of people attending [their] event (Gender, Age),” and “receive identification reports for a specific event, group of events and attendance of a specific member.” To get the facial recognition software going, churches must first take photos of their faithful to “register and enroll into the data base of Churchix.” After this, the churches will have access to streamlined, automatic attendance data—and won’t have to go through what Churchix calls the “pain” of personal interaction with their attendees.
The number of churches currently using this technology is as high as 40. Speaking at a conference at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, privacy attorney and partner at Edelson PC, Ari Scharg, mentioned that this technology is being used to track people’s church attendance patterns, such as how often they attend and how early they arrive, and that the churches can use this information to understand how much money church goers can be asked to donate.
Churchix claims that despite “honest concerns over privacy” and people’s “‘Big Brother’ mentality” about what the technology entails, it “think[s] that [such beliefs] are mostly a bad feeling derived from a possible abuse of the technology rather than actual threats.” The company website explains that “on the contrary, face recognition software helps catching the bad guys… .” But even the company’s own PR efforts on its website include articles that criticize Churchix for the serious privacy concerns that its technology raises.
As Michael Casey from CBS News says, “the growth of this [facial recognition] technology has far outpaced any efforts to regulate it… .” and if it keeps going the way it is going, it will be very difficult for regulatory bodies to take a stand fast enough to make a difference. The technology is already being used by advertisers in shopping malls to analyze what you are looking at on a store shelf, analyze your demographic information based on your facial characteristics and later show you a targeted advertisement with another item that you may be interested in based on all of this information. Churchix is a branch of Face-Six, the facial recognition business that offers the technology to shopping malls. In addition to offering its services to churches (through Churchix) and shopping malls, Face-Six offers its services to airports, border control, law enforcement, casinos and also for home security purposes.
When a single company is behind all of the different applications of the technology—from shopping malls and targeted advertisements to church attendance—how do we know that people’s images uploaded to the Churchix database will not end up being used to sell them religious books later when they visit a mall that uses the same technology? What if you have been missing church for a few weeks, would you like to see an advertisement for a book about “regaining your faith?”
A few states—such as Illinois—have enacted laws protecting people’s biometric information. The Illinois statute protects people’s biometric identifiers, such as “a retina or iris scan, fingerprint, voiceprint, or scan of hand or face geometry,” among other things, by requiring that entities planning to collect such data inform the person in writing before collecting it, tell the person for how long and for what purpose they are collecting the data and have the person sign a written release. It also prohibits entities from selling or profiting from someone’s biometric data and requires that entities in possession of such data develop policies and procedures for its destruction. However, Illinois is one of a few states currently taking steps to protect people’s biometric information and we are still far away from a comprehensive national regulatory regime.
Let’s instead think about this for a moment from the perspective of individual church members and the church community as a whole. Faith is a deeply personal thing which should be between the person and that which he or she believes in, something out of the human realm and out of the reach of human hands. It is a sacred communication between the person and something that transcends the physically human. Is it okay for a third eye in the sky to observe that person’s movements in and out of his or her place of worship? What are the deeper connotations of a pervasive intervention between a person and his or her faith? If church goers become aware that their movements in and out of the church are constantly being tracked, this may alter their church-going habits (as they may dislike being observed and tracked without having control over it) and may decide to stop attending church altogether. On the other hand, those who refuse to give up going to church will always have to think about that third eye who knows whether he or she went to church last week or not.
And what happens if we were to replace the word “church” in the last paragraph with the word “mosque”? It is not hard to imagine the potential for profiling and even more invasive targeting this technology—which works across different settings through the photo database—can bring.
For the most part, places of worship are still the heart and soul of their respective communities. They are groups of families and individuals who look out for each other and have each other’s back. When a congregation member is absent for a long time, other members will express their concern and reach out. If such interactions are interrupted by an automated attendance tracker, will it interfere with the community’s spiritual dynamics? To what extent will we allow technologies to alter human dynamics in their most essential manifestations? Only time will tell.
This isn’t about makeup. This is one of the most personal and private aspects of a person’s life, and we should not become desensitized to technologies which invade it.
Alexandra Franco is a Research Associate at the Institute for Science, Law and Technology at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. The title of this essay is based on Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”