The first time it happened I thought it was a mistake. I posted a photo on Facebook of myself with my husband and our daughter. Facebook suggested I tag two people: Justin, and my mom.
Weird, I thought. Is Facebook now immediately alerting all grandparents to photos of their grandkids? I manually deleted mom’s name, hit “Post” and moved on.
Days later it happened again, with a photo from lunch with two girlfriends. Facebook suggested Carol (present), Sarah (present) and Mom, who at the time was more than 5,000 miles away.
I stared at it for a minute. And then, in a moment of terrible clarity, I understood.
Facebook thinks I’m my mother.
How did we get to this point? Mom and I are 24 years, 4 months, and 16 days apart. We look a lot alike. Normally—normally!—I consider this a compliment.
I think my mom is beautiful. She drinks less, eats better and exercises more than I do. There’s no way I’ll age as well as she has. I would be delighted to look like my mother—when I am my mother’s age.
In the meantime, I am 35 years old. It’s true that, with unnerving frequency, I catch myself doing things that can only be described as Mom-ish: giving side-eye to cars speeding on residential streets, dancing with my elbows out when a Top 40 song comes on, grumbling that the neighbor’s Halloween display is too scary for kids. I know what’s coming. But I still could use another year or two before a cold-eyed algorithm confirms that the transformation is complete.
As one does when facing personal crisis, I took to the Internet. Mom-misidentification must be a thing, right? A billion people use Facebook every day. Its facial recognition API must be laughably buggy. Probably everyone from Malia Obama to Anderson Cooper has at some point tweeted “LOL FML!!!” next to their photo and their mother’s autotagged name.
Actually, no. Facebook’s facial recognition software is eerily accurate. Based on technology created by an Israeli startup the company bought in 2013, Facebook claims it can identify a face with 97.35% accuracy. A human brain gets it right about 98% of the time.
It knows your clothing. It knows your posture. It knows who you are even when the photo cuts off your face. It knows everybody, except for those of us slowly and inexorably turning into our mothers.
So what the hell, Zuckerberg?!?
Facebook’s DeepFace software analyzes your profile picture and other tagged photos to create a unique template based on features like the distance between your eyes, nose and ears, Ari Entin, a Facebook representative, tells Quartz.
Every time a new tagged photo is added, your personal identification template gets updated. Between Facebook and its assorted properties—Instagram, Messenger, Whatsapp—2 billion new photos are added every day. In theory, the margin of error should be constantly shrinking, but I’m getting Mom-tagged with ever-increasing frequency.
“It’s possible,” Entin explained with incredible diplomacy, “that as you age, the measurements of your templates are growing more similar to your mother’s template.”
“Another consideration is that someone—let’s say your father, just for the sake of conversation—uploaded a picture of you and your mother and tagged you as her.”
YES. That sounds right. Can I find a single photo on Facebook in which this appears to have occurred? No.
Doesn’t matter. I’m going with it.
The US government, Google and other companies are pursuing similar facial recognition capabilities, and The technology has serious privacy implications.
If a program can recognize you in group wedding photos, it can also pick you out of a group that you might not want to be publicly identified in, depending on who’s looking: a protest march, surveillance footage. Blending into the crowd is no longer an option. Except, I guess, for my mom and me.
There was one person left to talk to.
“What’s tagging?” Mom asked. She’s not a big Facebooker. I started to explain. She started on a story about someone from work trying to friend her. It was a whole thing.
Finally we circled back. Facebook has never mistaken her photos for mine; that river only flows in one direction. I tried to pass it off as a crazy technical glitch. So many faces! Such little margin of error! What are the chances! That’s not how she saw it.
“So you’re turning into your mother?” she said, with a satisfied expression I know all too well. Someday—if not already—it’s going to be mine.