China Fights Toilet Paper Theft With Facial-Recognition Technology

Image: Users must stand in front of this machine for three seconds.
Users must stand in front of this machine for three seconds.Eric Baculinao / NBC News

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By Eric Baculinao

BEIJING — A busy public restroom in China has begun deploying high-tech facial recognition technology to wipe out the problem of toilet paper theft.

At Temple of Heaven, a popular tourist attraction in Beijing, users must stand for three seconds in front of a camera-equipped dispenser in order to receive a two-foot section of bathroom tissue.

The theft-plagued public toilet is very busy.Eric Baculinao / NBC News

The $1,000 machine will not dispense any more to the same user for the next nine minutes.

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The unusual restriction aims to “cope with the behavior of taking public toilet paper home which is theft and abuse of public resource,” a park manager told NBC News.

After providing toilet paper for free for 10 years, “we decided to use face recognition technology as our latest measure to curb excessive paper use which affects the interests of other users,” added the official, who gave his family name as Xing.

Toilet paper is not readily available in most public bathrooms in China.

Most of the people who take toilet paper home are “middle-aged and old people, who come to the park regularly,” according to Xing.

The machine has provoked a debate on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging platform, with one user commenting: “How pathetic. Why do we need to be supervised on EVERYTHING!”

Users must stand in front of this machine for three seconds.Eric Baculinao / NBC News

Concerns about privacy are baseless because “we won’t be using the facial images for other purposes,” Xing said.

Images of users will be “automatically deleted after nine minutes,” said Lei Zhenshan, marketing director of the Shenzhen-based device manufacturer.

Beijing's Olympic Park, hospitals and universities have also installed similar machines, Lei said.

Dawn Liu and Sami Tseng contributed.