Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung is widely known as the “God of Songs.” Cheung’s latest concert tour however has earned the veteran singer a new nickname: “Fugitive Catcher.” Last Saturday night a thief and a document forger went to see Cheung perform in Jinhua City, but instead ended up in handcuffs. They were the latest of five criminal suspects to be apprehended at Cheung concerts over the past two months.
News of the arrests is trending on social media, with Chinese netizens joking that “singing may be just [Cheung’s] part-time job. Actually he’s an undercover cop!” and “don’t call him ‘God of Songs,’ call him Officer.” Cheung’s tour stops in the Henan city of Luoyang next month, and local police also got into the act, posting on Weibo: “We are ready!”
Cheung addressed the situation in a recent interview with Chinese media: “To be honest, as a thief, even if you are not caught at my concert, you can get caught going to a convenience store, right?”
The busts are being made using advanced AI-powered facial recognition techniques that can literally pick a face out of a crowd, leaving criminals nowhere to hide.
Let’s take a look at the first suspect. He was spotted by a facial recognition-backed CCTV camera as he entered the concert venue in Nanchang this April, and taken into custody just 30 minutes after Cheung began singing. Similar AI-powered cameras identified the second suspect in a Ganzhou concert hall, and the third in Jiaxing.
“Skynet” — believed to be the brain behind these arrests — is the real-world name for China’s real-time surveillance program for public security. It is billed as the world’s biggest camera surveillance network, with over 20 million cameras deployed across China. Last year, BBC reporter John Sudworth agreed to be tracked by Skynet to test its capabilities. He was located and “apprehend” in just seven minutes.
“Today, 90 percent of the crimes detected by the police come from these monitoring facial recognition cameras,” says Dean of China Telecom Shanghai Research Institute Anmin Li. “They are a high-level technology enabling facial recognition, deep image mining, and mass retrieving.”
Shopping malls, airports, stadiums, and banks are all adopting video surveillance technology, driving a Chinese security surveillance market that is now valued at CNY¥752 billion (US$120 billion) according to the China Securities Industry Network. That’s a big pie, and everyone wants a piece.
Hikvision is thus far the industry leader, accounting for 21.4 percent of the global market in CCTV and video surveillance in 2016, and leading the security surveillance market with an estimated value of US$63 billion. The company’s 2017 net profit was CN¥9.4 billion (US$1.47 billion) with a gross margin of 44 percent. Hikvision is also a major Skynet supplier.
Meanwhile, emerging Chinese AI and computer vision startups are also getting involved. Shuang Wu, senior researcher at Chinese AI unicorn Yitu told Synced that over 30 provincial and 150 municipal public security departments have adopted Yitu’s techniques for identifying criminal activity and hunting fugitives. In 2015, Suzhou local police captured a burglar in just ten minutes, using Yitu tech to pinpoint the target car from among hundreds in a surveillance video.
A fugitive surnamed Ma who was apprehended at at Cheung concert told police, “if I couldn’t sell the tickets, I would enjoy the concert myself.” It is natural to imagine one could simply blend in with a crowd of tens of thousands. But a look at the news shows that’s clearly changing. Will the recent series of arrests turn outlaws into hermits?
Like Cheung said, fugitives who show their faces in Chinese public places will end up being caught. Thanks to AI, it’s only a matter of time.