Beijing deploys facial scanners to counter public toilet abuse

Penny pinching pensioners restricted to 60cm allocation

Beijing authorities are forcing desperate defecators to submit to a facial scan before receiving an allotment of toilet paper, sparking a debate over privacy, crowd control and the toxic qualities of Chinese loo roll.

The city's crapper commissars have installed a phalanx of automated loo roll dispensers at Beijing’s biggest public toilet - adjacent to the Temple of Heaven - after concerns that pensioners are purloining large amounts of tissue from municipal facilities to use at home.

Before they can get the standard 60cm (six-square) allotment of loo roll, visitors must first submit to a three-second scan - sans hat and glasses. The system will then refuse further allotments to recently scanned residents for at least nine minutes.

However, the system has sparked fury on both ethical and technological grounds.

Software malfunctions have forced some cross-legged users to stand in front of the face scanner for over a minute before it spits out their wipe-able ration. Attendants were forced to distribute toilet paper manually after some of the machines crapped out completely.

Others have expressed concern over the privacy implications of the technology, with The Guardian quoting one Weibo user moaning: “I thought the toilet was the last place I had a right to privacy, but they are watching me in there too.”

Still others saw the technology as saving users from themselves. “The cheap paper in public toilet contains lots of toxic materials such as fluorescent agents. Excessive use will only damage their health,” claimed a user on WeChat, according to the New Straits Times

We’re sure these are just teething troubles, perhaps down to an insufficient scanner-to-cubicle ratio. Indeed, we can’t help thinking one solution would be for the scanner to be installed in the cubicle itself. At which point, some kind of retinal scan might be quicker, and arguably less intrusive.

Perhaps Chinese authorities could work on such an integration as part of its two-year-old toilet revolution plan, under which it plans to install or upgrade 50,916 toilets by the end of the year under the auspices of the National Tourism Administration. According to Xinhua the campaign is experiencing “smooth progress” as the party’s edicts work their way through the nation’s sanitary system.

The country’s ambitions for a great leap forward in lavatory terms received a boost last month with a government backed programme to improve the quality of Chinese made toilets, after suggestions that affluent Chinese were heading to Japan to procure smart loos.

The effort also aims to improve the quality of rice cookers and air purifiers. It’s not clear exactly how much integration between the three product categories is envisioned, though we can see some call for in it in London, given the Lilliputian dimensions of much new building housing here. ®

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