Bathroom biometrics: China uses facial recognition to deter toilet paper theft

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China bathroom sign, via Flickr.

An unlikely new frontier for biometric technology opened this week when authorities at Beijing’s Temple of Heaven Park installed facial recognition-enabled toilet paper dispensers to crack down on an epidemic of tissue theft.

Unlike many public restrooms throughout the country, those at the Temple of Heaven — a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the Chinese capital’s most popular tourist attractions — provide free toilet paper for visitors. But “seriously excessive use” of the gratis bathroom tissue had become an increasingly costly problem, according to a China Radio International report, which revealed stocks are disappearing almost immediately.

A local newspaper investigation found the culprits earlier this month: tight-fisted neighborhood residents spooling off yards of toilet paper or simply swiping multiple rolls to stock their own cabinets.

Now, authorities hope a high-tech solution can help.

Six toilet paper dispensers, each enabled with a high-definition camera and facial recognition software, have been stationed at bathroom entrances throughout the park. Visitors must remove hats and glasses and stand in front of the device for three seconds for the camera to capture their image.

If everything checks out, the machine will dispense just under two feet of toilet paper. That ration must be used wisely – the machines are programmed to allow a single person to receive toilet paper only once every nine minutes.

“We brainstormed many options: fingerprints, infrared and facial recognition,” said Lei Zhenshan, marketing director for the Tianjin-based company that designed the dispensers, in an interview with The New York Times. “We went with facial recognition, because it’s the most hygienic way.”

Not everyone is comfortable with the fix, however. Beijing is already one of the most heavily surveilled cities in the world, and many residents are concerned that the government will now have photographic access to even their most private behavior. The BBC also reports that some machines have proven to be slow and finicky, a serious problem for those in urgent need.

If a two-week trial for the biometric dispensers is successful, they could be installed in more public bathrooms throughout the city soon.