Visit Bikini.com and you’ll get what you expect (assuming you’re not a pervert): A shopping portal for swimwear. However, according to a new report in Wired, Remark Holdings, the small, Las Vegas-based firm behind the site, is branching out into a very different tech space: AI-powered recognition technology the Chinese government can use to surveil its citizens.
China’s Growing Surveillance State
Recent advances in AI-assisted recognition technology has pushed China to the forefront for technologies that might raise concern in the more privacy-focused West. “Gait recognition” technology—which can spot people from up to 165 feet away, even with their back to the camera—is already being used by police in the streets of Beijing and Shanghai. Along with facial recognition software that can identify criminals in crowds, China is building a robust and integrated national system of surveillance camera data.
Enter companies like Remark. Although the firm—which has connections to Hollywood players like disgraced director Brett Ratner and TV host Dr. Mehmet Oz—was initially centered on media and retail sites like Bikini.com and Vegas.com, the focus began to change after Shing Tao became CEO in 2012.
Pivot to Deep Learning
Speaking with Wired, Tao said that, “It was very clear that [Remark] needed to have some type of technology, some type of edge, that no one could compete with.” After blowing through money developing wearable pet cameras and a device to prevent texting and driving, Remark decided to turn its focus to the cheaper Chinese market.
The company’s new CTO, Jason Wei, put together a team of engineers based in Chengdu to build a social media analysis service for marketers, which eventually pointed him to the new developments in AI taking off in Silicon Valley. Wei focused on how a technique called deep learning was making significant advances in image classification and, borrowing ideas and open source codes, Remark soon launched its social media analytic service KanKan.
“We’d built up a strong base of data, and during this time the costs of AI kind of came down,” Tao told Wired about the launch of the service.
Today, Remark has a number of subsidiaries based in China. One of them analyzes surveillance video to help police in Hangzhou identify motorcycles driving on streets where they’re banned. Remark is also using its facial recognition software to win contracts with conglomerates like Charoen Pokphand Group, which operates more than 10,000 7-Eleven stores in Thailand. CP Group hopes to use the tech to recognize customers for loyalty programs, as well as identify shoplifters.
Still, the fact that a small company with no history in cutting-edge tech could develop its own AI software in a few short years has aroused suspicion.
In 2017, Remark reported just $70 million in total revenue and most of that came from its travel business. By comparison, Google generates more revenue on an average day. Wired also reports that Remark’s technology business generated just $4.6 million in revenue through the first six months of 2018; in March, Tao projected that KanKan would earn $50 million in annual revenue.
Perhaps worse, a company analysis published earlier this year by the financial research firm J Capital Research was scathing, questioning Remark’s very legitimacy. “Wherever we look, we cannot find a real business behind Remark Holdings,” the analysis states. Tao told Wired the company’s revenue shortfalls were due in part to bureaucratic delays.
Regardless of Remark itself, rapid advancements in AI combined with China’s appetite for data means we can expect more U.S. firms to follow the lead of Bikini.com and take the plunge into cyber surveillance.