Three years ago, Beijing installed camera-equipped machines in the Temple of Heaven lavatories to dispense exactly 28-inches of toilet roll per person.
The system used facial recognition technology to lock out access to individuals who wanted more than their fair share - and it worked. Toilet paper thefts disappeared overnight.
Such Orweillian technology is being used throughout China amid the coronavirus outbreak to monitor everything from a citizen’s movements to what they buy at the supermarkets.
A ‘smile to pay’ system, for instance, allows shoppers to make purchases simply by posing in front of a camera-equipped point-of-sale machine. Facial recognition software then links an image of their face to their bank account, allowing them to be charged automatically.
But could similar tools be used by UK supermarkets to combat panic buying?
The technology is ready and available, says Will Broome, the chief executive of shopping app Ubamarket. His ‘scan, pay and go’ app, which has been tested by the likes of Budgens and Londis, uses facial recognition to allow customers to be approved to buy products without ID checks at the till.
The feature could be adapted to combat stockpiling and help deliver supplies to match demand. It could, in effect, become the modern-day version of the ration book.
“If you do that extra registration step on the app, which we can make compulsory, it will cross reference you with your passport,” says Broome.
“It may well be what it will be that retailers will start to choose that option. They may like to enable the whole identification side of things because they want to know exactly what the shopper is doing and at what time.”
Not only would that help monitor supplies, but it could provide the government with a powerful tool to enforce its quarantine rules.
Russia has already taken this step. Since last month, thousands of Muscovites have been confined to their homes for 14 days of compulsory quarantine after returning from virus-hit countries, being in contact with those infected or diagnosed with mild symptoms.
Police have logged their details and warned them that if they are caught sneaking out by Moscow’s 170,000 security cameras, they could land a five-year jail term or deportation for foreigners.
"We are constantly checking that this regulation is being observed, including through the use of automated facial recognition systems," Mayor Sergei Sobyanin wrote in his blog in February.
"The probability of a mistake by our facial recognition algorithm is 1 in 15 million," said Alexander Minin, CEO of NtechLab, the company that won the city's tender to supply the technology for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The firm's devices, which have been exported to China and Latin America, can identify someone from their silhouette alone "80pc of the time," he says.
Regardless of such claims, British citizens are far less likely to accept such draconian surveillance - even in a time of crisis, says Charlotte Walker-Obsorn, international head of artificial intelligence at Eversheds Sutherland.
“Many people may consider it as an excessive use of personal data. The UK privacy law has very limited scope for use of facial recognition, if any.”
As well as privacy and legal concerns, there are fears that cyber criminals could exploit facial recognition data to create everything from fake bank accounts to passports.
“It scares the life out of me, if I’m honest,” says Matt Lock, technical director at cybersecurity business Varonis. “[Your face] is something that you can't ever change. It's something that once it's out there, it's gone. You have little to no control over being able to change this information.
“I'm sure these things will help all sorts of situations. But inevitably, things could go awry.. it's basically handing all the information onto a plate for somebody that could quite easily manipulate it.”
Public opinion in the UK may yet shift if the worst case scenario of coronavirus plays out. On balance, security and privacy concerns could be outweighed by efforts to save lives.
But just as it took years to get rid of rationing after World War II, any technologies Britain implements now may linger long after coronavirus has been defeated.