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Chinese public toilet with facial recognition paper dispenser sparks privacy concerns

A public toilet in southern China have forced residents to use facial recognition machine before being allowed to receive tissue paper.

People are required to scan their face in front of the intelligent dispenser which then gives each person a limited amount of toilet paper to reduce waste, according to the company that produced the equipment.

The machine spotted in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, sparked a heated discussion on social media, with many netizens and residents worrying that the technology could leak personal information.

People are required to scan their face in front of the intelligent dispenser which then gives each person a limited amount of toilet paper to reduce waste, reported state media

The machine spotted in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, sparked a heated discussion on social media, with many netizens and residents worrying that it could leak personal data

In a Thursday report by state broadcaster CCTV, a machine with a screen and a camera can be seen placed at the entrance of the public toilet.

An instruction read: ‘Please look at here, toilet paper will automatically come out within three seconds.’

After the dispenser recognised a user and gave out a limited amount of loo rolls, residents would not be able to collect any more for another seven minutes, the CCTV reporter said.

According to the machine’s screen, it has given out paper for 6174 times while a total of 280million people has used the service across the country.

It remains unclear how many 'smart paper dispensers' like this one have been installed in public toilets in China.

But the seemingly convenient technology has raised concerns among local residents who worry about their personal information being collected and leaked.

‘A lot of people, including myself, share the same concerns,’ Mr Chen told CCTV. ‘It’s common nowadays that your personal information being leaked everywhere. Would [this machine] do the same?’

In 2017, Beijing's Temple of Heaven installed facial recognition technology in the park's bathrooms in order to stop people from stealing toilet paper 

Tianjin Soline Technology, the tech firm that produced the machines, claimed that the equipment would delete the stored data regularly.

But people’s information could still be saved in the company’s central system, posing a risk of information leak, the state media warned, citing an internet expert.

The incident also sparked a heated discussion on Chinese social media, with many users slamming the tech company for ‘abusing the technology’.

One commenter wrote: ‘This is completely abusing the technology. Face recognition technology should be used to facilitate social governance and management, not become a way to casually collect biological information.’

Another netizen agreed: ‘This is toxic. Haven’t we had enough of personal information leak? Is everyone supposed to live transparently without privacy?’

A third user said: ‘The public toilet’s managers probably wanted to reduce waste [of toilet paper] and prevent people from stealing them. But the equipment operators might think otherwise. They probably just wanted to collect big data from the public.’

This file photo shows visitors being filmed by facial recognition cameras at the 14th China International Exhibition on Public Safety and Security in Beijing on October 24, 2018

A worker is pictured adjusting a surveillance camera outside the home of a journalist placed under quarantine after he had visited Wuhan in Beijing on May 3. Such security cameras are set up 'purely for the needs of counter-epidemic works', according to The Global Times

Similar intelligent dispensers have been spotted in other Chinese cities.

In Beijing and Fuzhou, each toilet-goer would be given a piece of toilet paper measuring 70cm long (28 inches) once they have their face recognised with these camera-equipped machines.

They are designed to combat the so-called 'toilet paper thieves', who would hide several metres of communal toilet paper in their bags and sneak them home.

Beijing has faced widespread doubts and criticism over its use of artificial intelligence to monitor its citizens amid the pandemic.

Tens of millions of Chinese residents were ordered to use a smartphone app that evaluates their health condition and tracks their travel history during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Millions of video cameras blanket streets from major cities to small towns. Censors monitor activity on the internet and social media. State-owned telecom carriers can trace where mobile phone customers go.

Last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the world to set up and use a global QR code system to help establish travellers' health status and open up international travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But the system has been slammed by international human rights groups who warn that the codes could be used for 'broader political monitoring and exclusion'.

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