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What Is Idle Detection in Google Chrome?

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Chrome's Idle Detection API has raised quite a few eyebrows since its release. Some may call it an invasion of physical privacy, whereas some argue the feature is ideal for certain web apps.

The Idle Detection API was originally trialed from Chrome 84 to 86, after which it was shelved until Chrome 93. The feature has become a part of Chrome, and is included in stable updates to the browser. Here's everything you need to know about the feature.

What Is Chrome's Idle Detection API?

Google Chrome's Idle Detection API notifies web developers when users are idle. For example, the API sends a notification to developers when:

  • There's no interaction with the screen, mouse or keyboard.
  • A screensaver is activated.
  • The screen is locked, or when the user moves to another screen.

Simply put, the Idle Detection API will inform developers when you are no longer interacting with the screen. It detects when users are idle, which raises a host of privacy concerns.

If you are using Chrome 94 or later, the Idle Detection API is probably activated by default. If not, you'll be able to quickly change this setting.

Developers must define the threshold which shall trigger the notification. Google has suggested several use cases for the Idle Detection API, including:

  • Public kiosk apps, such as in museums. The API can automatically return to “home” view when no one is interacting with the app.
  • Social networking platforms and chat apps can use this to let users know when contacts are available or not.
  • Apps that carry out complex calculations can take advantage of this API to limit calculations to instances where the user is active and interacting with the device.

If you are concerned about your privacy and don't want websites to know when you are interacting with your device or not, you can turn off Idle Detection on your browser.

How to Disable the Idle Detection API in Chrome

If you want to turn Idle Detection off in Chrome, here are the steps you need to follow.

1. Make Sure You're Running Chrome 94

The first step is to check whether you are running Chrome 94 or a newer build. Click on the three vertical dots on the top right, besides your profile picture, and navigate to Help. Then, click on About Google Chrome.

Google Chrome About page

The next step is to navigate to idle detection. Just copy and paste “chrome://settings/content/idleDetection” into your address bar. You can then decide the default behavior to completely disable Idle Detection.

Chrome-Idle-detection

3. Setting Customized Behaviors

If you want certain websites to know when you're actively using your device, you can also add specific sites. Similarly, if you want to block certain websites from knowing when the device is idle, you can add those here too.

Potential Impact of Chrome's Idle Detection on Privacy

Despite the fact that Google has outlined use cases for the Idle Detection API, the response hasn't been all positive. Many competitors, including Mozilla and Apple, have outlined their reservations.

chromium-web-dev

Mozilla refers to it as an opportunity for “surveillance capitalism”. With other platforms like Facebook actively tracking users, many believe this is Google's way of further invading a user's physical privacy. It's one of the reasons why Mozilla has labeled the API “harmful”.

Ryosuke Niwa, an engineer at Apple who is a member of their WebKit Architecture team, stated that there are obvious fingerprinting concerns. Ryosuke went on to highlight that this API will allow websites to know when users are near their devices or not.

This leaves the door open for potentially harmful activities, such as mining cryptocurrency on a user's computer when they are not around. However, the API has received positive support from developers at Slack and Google Chat. The API would allow web apps to consume less power when they detect they're not in use.

Be Mindful of Your Privacy Online

Your privacy is in your own hands. Make sure you review your privacy settings from time to time, and understand the permissions given to websites.

Most people believe that “incognito mode” is the ultimate way to browse the web using Chrome. However, that's not all secure, either.

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