Hunting down a fugitive in a country with 1.4 billion people can be an uphill struggle. But China’s law enforcement agencies now have a helping hand thanks to a crop of artificial intelligence firms that employ facial recognition technology to help find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Guangzhou-based start-up Cloudwalk is one of them. State-backed Cloudwalk’s facial recognition technology has assisted Chinese police with over 10,000 arrests in the past four years, the company said in a statement, and has been deployed by over 29 provinces across China. It makes over 1 billion comparisons of faces against its database each day and has accumulated more than 100 billion data points. The company also set up a joint video analytics research lab under the Ministry of Public Security in July to enhance collaboration on technology products for use by the police. Cloudwalk, along with competitor AI start-ups such as SenseTime Group and Megvii, are helping to power the country’s massive surveillance network. China’s Skynet Project, a national system aimed at “fighting crime and preventing possible disasters”, according to the authorities, had more than 20 million cameras installed in public spaces in Chinese cities in 2017, while the Sharp Eye Project has extended the watch to rural areas across China, according to state media. How AI, facial recognition could put security guards out of business Research firm IHS Markit estimated that China had 176 million surveillance cameras in public and private areas in 2017, compared to only 50 million cameras in the US. The researcher expects about 450 million new cameras to be shipped to the Chinese market by the end of 2020. Born as an incubation project of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, China’s top science research institute, Cloudwalk was founded in 2015 by computer vision scientist Zhou Xi, who left his job at the institute along with some fellow researchers from the facial recognition team to start the new venture. Initially focused on finance, Cloudwalk grew into the biggest AI supplier to Chinese banks, the company said. Over 400 banks including the Bank of China and the Agricultural Bank of China across China have already deployed Cloudwalk’s facial recognition technology in their ATM networks, processing around 216 million transactions per day. The company’s face scan technology is also up and running in over 60 airports across China, the company said. Beijing turns to facial recognition to deter hospital scalpers Cloudwalk has received financial backing and endorsement from local and state governments since its inception. The company has participated in standards-setting for facial recognition at the national level, and was among a list of companies supported by China’s National Development and Reform Commission in a high precision facial recognition project last year. Beijing is pushing facial recognition into many corners of peoples’ lives, from exposing jaywalkers and saving toilet paper to spotting ticket scalpers and enabling password-free payments. China’s State Council in July 2017 unveiled its “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan” for the country – a three-step road map for AI dominance by 2030. Cloudwalk received a 2 billion yuan (US$297 million) grant from the Guangzhou municipal government in 2017, and also counts multiple government funds, including China Reform Holdings under the State Council, among its backers. Jaywalkers, Shenzhen is watching you The firm is currently valued at US$3 billion, according to a report by Credit Suisse, according it unicorn status – which refers to private start-ups with a valuation of at least US$1 billion. Cloudwalk is also eyeing overseas opportunities. The company is reported to have signed a deal with the government of Zimbabwe to build a smart financial services network for banks and set up surveillance networks in public areas, according to a report by state-run media outlet the Science and Technology Daily. Cloudwalk will also assist with the development of a national facial database in Zimbabwe, the report said. Cloudwalk declined to comment on the deal.