The proliferation of washroom technology is creating something of a new standard for facilities. But does it cause inherent privacy issues?
That question has been assessed by the European Cleaning Journal, which has taken a look at how washroom technology affects traditional ideas of privacy.
Nowadays, so-called “smart” washrooms offer a great deal of hitherto non-existent bells and whistles. In addition to the trend of touchless installations, which had existed before the COVID-19 pandemic but have become increasingly common in the new world of enhanced cleaning and disinfection, this sort of washroom technology can do everything from count the number of visitors to gather data to check users’ health.
The Journal notes, though, that some public facilities are breaking new ground.
A Japanese company, Toto, is developing a lavatory that uses artificial intelligence to analyze human waste, as well as using sensors in toilet seats to record pulse and blood pressure data. Meanwhile, New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology has pioneered a cloud-connected toilet that can track similar data.
Not all of this type of innovation is new, but it’s being found in increasing numbers and in increasingly varied forms. And there’s a debate raging around the extent of the privacy concerns that sparks.
Some public toilets in China have employed facial recognition technology to limit people’s use of toilet paper with the aim of minimizing waste and reducing over-consumption. Amid concerns that data could be stored and used elsewhere, the use of such facial recognition dispensers was halted in some parts of the country in December 2020.
Similar wariness has been shown elsewhere in the world. For example, a “wellness” toilet recently developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which contained sensors for assessing the user’s sleep patterns, exercise, medication, and alcohol and caffeine intake, sparked fears about the sensitive information being hacked.
Time to hit the brakes?
So, where should the line be drawn?
Essity’s Tork EasyCube uses connected devices in washrooms to gather data on dispenser refill levels and visitor numbers, which can be accessed remotely by cleaners. “Data-driven cleaning provides cleaners with real-time information that allows them to work out where they are likely to be needed most – and when,” said communications director Renée Remijnse. “The use of this data and connectivity in general can result in many gains in terms of efficiency and washroom quality.”
However, while Remijnse says there is value in smart washroom technology that can perform health analysis, particular innovations like facial recognition systems for limiting paper use like those utilized in China are a step too far as they aren’t necessary to achieve the end goal. “A single-sheet dispensing system will reduce the amount of toilet tissue taken out at any one time while also ensuring continuous refill availability,” she said.
Ultimately, she stresses, ensuring privacy is paramount. “People don’t want to feel watched – especially when they’re in the washroom.”
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Diversey’s retail and distribution European marketing director Angelika Koppe agrees, noting that “in my personal view, this is an invasion of privacy.” she said.
One innovation Koppe does see high value in is washroom monitoring systems. This technology can automatically flag up when a certain number of visitors have visited a washroom, thus providing key indicators for cleaning schedules, and can also help to monitor refill levels for soap and paper towel dispensers.
“I think this is the future,” she notes. “This will be a real benefit and will ensure washrooms stay clean while also offering a consistent level of hygiene.”
As washroom technology continues to focus on health monitoring and connectivity, it certainly seems fair to say that these innovations should only be employed with visitor consent.