Sacred and Secure

Sacred and Secure

How to maintain openness and accessibility, and offer security and safety

When people think of a House of Worship (HoW) what may first come to mind is a solemn sanctuary of welcome and refuge. Churches, mosques, synagogues, temples and other places of worship are built on the premise of openness and accessibility, peace and community.

As crime and targeted violence increases in almost every other aspect of life, Houses of Worship have unfortunately not been spared. According to the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), there has been a “discernible increase in the number of [targeted violence] incidents between 2015 and 2019” at houses of worship. Of these attacks, “54%... were an armed assault of some kind, including shootings, edged weapons and vehicular assaults.”1 In 2019 alone, HoW’s experienced extreme attacks world-wide:

  • March 2019: Australian man opened fire on worshipers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 people
  • April 2019: Poway, California, synagogue shooting results in 1 death and 3 injuries
  • April 2019: Easter Sunday explosions in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka kill more than 250 people, including 45 children

In protecting HoW’s, security professionals and congregants face a unique dilemma: how to maintain openness and accessibility while still ensuring security and safety. While the targeted violent attacks on Houses of Worship are what make the news, they face a range of incidents from loitering, graffiti, and vandalism, all the way to life-threatening violence.

To help address these security concerns a variety of checklists are available, many of which provide a holistic approach to addressing security threats. The general recommendations are:

  • Clearly identify roles and responsibilities and create a designated security committee
  • Conduct a security audit to identify risks and vulnerabilities
  • Create a security plan which includes proactive physical security, to include video surveillance, access controls and weapons screening.
  • Since more HoW’s are offering virtual services, implement cybersecurity protocols alongside physical security protocols
  • Create an emergency crisis plan which includes procedures on connecting with local law enforcement and immediate safety measures should an attack occur

Of these items, new developments in AI technology are helping to assist with physical security measures at houses of worship.

A large Hindu faith based organization explored such technology as it dissected incidents occurring in other places of worship around the world, and worked to ensure the safety of their own centers. This organization has more than 3800 centers worldwide, with mandirs (temples) ranging in size from the smallest accommodating up to 50 families, to the largest locations, which can accommodate 500+ families.

Each type of HoW has its own unique security needs, and even within an institution the security requirements of each location can vary. In this organization, different sized mandirs face their own unique challenges. Smaller mandirs tend to have smaller budgets, which are determined by the level of donations received, and thus are more cost-conscious and conservative in their technology choices.

Larger mandirs often have the means to test out different technologies and strategies. In general, the organization has aimed to provide guidance to all its centers on which foundational technology to implement, such as a VMS, so that later, additional technology can be layered on and easily integrated.

Many places of worship, including this organization, have focused on some key areas of technology as part of their physical security implementation:


Video surveillance cameras are the bulwark of a robust physical security solution. Cameras for monitoring perimeters and people are de rigueur for many HoW’s. The amount of video obtained can be significant, so thorough review is often required to reap the benefits of the recordings and investigate events.

“Reviewing video is 100% a challenge,” said Dixit Suthar, security administrator at the organization. “It becomes time-consuming and cumbersome. A VMS makes things easier but most lack intelligence like analytics to help cut down on the viewing time and hone in on the incident at hand.”

This is especially true for larger locations, which can have hundreds of cameras and also many unexpected incidents, increasing the need for human inspection. Fortunately, today’s AI analytics are designed to assist with this task. Powerful AI search technology can detect objects and filter on attributes such as clothing or vehicle color, direction of movement and regions crossed. Some solutions even have the ability to track a single person across multiple cameras. In addition, advanced technology to “squeeze” long hours of video into shorter clips also reduces manual review times, often by 10 times.

Implementation of the technology is also important. Some use cases may require on-premise installations but many of today’s offerings take advantage of cloud computing to reduce costs, simplify deployment, and provide flexible, up-to-date models. Analytics solutions that can leverage existing infrastructure help reduce the costs of implementation, enabling the technology’s adoption in more locations.


Facial recognition technology is a powerful surveillance tool whose popularity appeared to wane somewhat in mid-2020 as tech companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Amazon put a moratorium on selling their software to law enforcement. The technology continues to advance, however, and there’s been a resurgence of interest in adoption. While there are still concerns around facial recognition, such as using technology to confirm an identity of a person – facial detection continues its adoption as it only strives to recognize an object as a face in an image.

Despite recent developments in machine learning, face recognition is challenging due to the great variability in head rotation and tilt, lighting intensity, facial expression, aging, etc. It is somewhat surprising that today, the main challenges for automatic recognition remain the same as with those identified 52 years ago by Woody Bledsoe and coincide with the problem of PIES (poseillumination- expression-structuring) in face recognition.2

Also, until recently the diversity of the samples used to train the AI models has been lacking, with white males being falsely matched less frequently than BIPOC faces and women3. Greater awareness and expansion of training data will help in correcting this bias.

Many Houses of Worship continue to explore implementing face recognition and detection, especially in conjunction with other security and access controls methods.


“The biggest priority is the threat of weapons, so we’re heavily focusing on weapons detection,” Suthar said. “Many of their international locations have metal detectors, with some larger locations disallowing even mobile phones. One of the challenges of deploying these universally is the requirement to force people to use only designated doors and entrances.

“Some mandirs have grand entrances which would have to be permanently closed if we require congregants to enter only through a certain set of doors,” Suthar said. “While it would make temperature checks and facial recognition easier to implement, accessibility and ability to appreciate the structures get lost. Post COVID, it’s going to be a challenge across the board for any place, whether it be a house of worship or office space.”

Camera-based anomaly, suspicious object and weapons detection solutions may mitigate some of these concerns by identifying threatening objects while still allowing freer use of the premises.


Many HoW’s still use clickers or iPads to track how many people have entered and exited their premises. This is another area where current occupancy management technology can be used to better understand traffic flows and optimize space use. Using video from strategically pointed cameras, AI analytics can provide a unified view on occupancy, use, dwell times, queue lengths and movement patterns in a designated space.

The software can also detect the same person and de-dupe the total, ensuring only unique counts are reported. These types of overlaying technologies can help a congregation control costs while still providing insights into what is happening in their physical spaces.


In an ideal world, houses of worship would have the means to implement a TSA-level ability to detect objects left behind. In reality, a spectrum of options is available, from having a policy that any items left behind are discarded to again leveraging AI analytics to spot forgotten items.

Even with older image recognition technology, it’s possible to detect a delta of whether an object has been added or removed from an image via changes in field of view. Newer AI technology can take it further, with the use of object detection and the training of models to recognize the most commonly left-behind items such as purses and clothing, to more suspicious objects such as bags and suitcases.


LPR and smoke and fire detection are some of the other technologies which can benefit from camera-based analytics. Integration of these and contextualization with other inputs (such as weather, etc.) can provide a comprehensive physical security solution. Whether the HoW is a small parish or a world-renown center, the ability of today’s technology to scale to a venue’s needs makes it both appealing and affordable.

While HoW’s worldwide must now face the unfortunate reality that they are not immune to crime or acts of violence, there are now technology solutions which can augment traditional security practices to help manage and mitigate physical security concerns. Being able to proactively manage and monitor a space while also quickly investigating incidents can help keep these important institutions open and safe to all who wish to enjoy them.

This article originally appeared in the July / August 2021 issue of Security Today.


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