Is China using facial recognition in toilet paper dispensers to control the population?

We came across the following post on a US-based Telegram channel with over 10,000 subscribers:

The post includes a short video of a few women with American accents attempting to obtain toilet paper from an automatic dispenser with a facial recognition system. The first woman, who is filming the process, is unable to obtain toilet paper from the dispenser. A second woman then takes over and receives the toilet paper after presenting herself in front of the device. Traditional Chinese music also plays in the background.

A caption included with the video suggests that toilet paper dispensers with facial recognition are ‘pointless’, and the main goal for the implementation of such a device is ‘absolute control’.

Tackling Theft with Technology

We looked into the authenticity of the video by running a reverse image search as well as a keyword web search. While we were unable to identify the location and date the video was taken, we found several web articles that featured the toilet paper dispenser with facial recognition featured in the Telegram post.

The earliest records we could find of the device’s use appears to be in 2017, when news outlets such as the BBC and the South China Morning Post (paywall) reported that the facial recognition technology had been implemented in toilets at the Temple of Heaven park in Beijing, one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions.

The articles stated that the devices had been installed to prevent visitors from ‘taking excessive amounts of toilet paper’. Visitors had been seen stealing large volumes of toilet paper for personal use, with some even stuffing their bags with it.

The new device, using facial recognition, would dispense between 60cm and 70cm of tissue paper to one individual, and would not dispense tissue to the same person until at least nine minutes had passed.

While some users encountered frustrating delays, park officials said the daily amount of toilet paper used had been reduced by 20%.

Privacy Concerns and Data Use

We traced the device back to its manufacturer using its description in various news reports, identifying it as the ‘sixth generation facial recognition toilet paper dispenser’ made by SoLine, a company headquartered in Beijing.

The company lists several locations where its device has been implemented, including tourist and entertainment sites and business districts in several cities, including some outside Beijing such as Shanghai and Fuzhou.

More recent news reports, however, suggest that concerns may be rising among the Chinese populace about the storage safety and possibility of abuse of collected data, including from facial recognition technology.

Articles from 2020 indicated that SoLine’s toilet paper dispensers had been removed from public toilets in the city of Dongguan after a public outcry on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

Authorities have sought to reassure citizens of the use of facial recognition in the devices. The Ministry of Public Security’s Electronic Product Quality Inspection Centre noted that the toilet tissue dispenser met the legal requirements for the collection of bioinformation, and that it could automatically delete data storage within a set time.

Company spokespersons for SoLine also said in various statements that facial data would be deleted after ten minutes, emphasising that the devices had no networking capabilities for cloud uploads, and pledged not to consider storing the facial data of users in the future. Some of this information is available on the manufacturer’s website.

It is therefore accurate that China has widely adopted facial recognition technology in toilet paper dispensers at places of interest. However, it is highly misleading to suggest that it is being implemented to ‘control’ the population, which suggests more general surveillance and monitoring of individuals using video.

Notwithstanding public concerns over privacy and the safety of the collected data, the purpose of the devices is to prevent the theft of toilet paper. We therefore rate the claim as mostly false and highly misleading with some factual elements.

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