In Chrome 94, a contentious idle detection API is introduced. In essence, websites can ask Chrome to detect when a user’s device is idle while a web page is open. It’s not only about how you use Chrome or a certain website: Chrome can identify a website you’re not actively using your computer if you’ve moved away from it and aren’t using any applications.
As you might think, developers are ecstatic about this new feature—anything that gives them greater insight into how consumers engage with their apps is a win. Chrome 94 has it enabled by default, but it might not be as horrible as it seems. Before using your idle data on a website, a prompt will ask for your permission, just like when you use your webcam or microphone.
The API has its detractors, notably Mozilla, a competitor browser maker. Firefox’s creators claim that it provides a “opportunity for surveillance capitalism.” Tantek Elik, Mozilla’s Web Standards Lead, reacted on GitHub, saying:
As written, I consider the Idle Detection API to be an all-too-appealing opportunity for surveillance capitalism-driven websites to intrude on a user’s physical privacy, keep long-term records of physical user behaviours, discern daily rhythms (e.g. lunchtime), and use that information for proactive psychological manipulation (e.g. hunger, emotion, choice)….”
Of course, Mozilla competes with Google Chrome, so it’s understandable that a competitor would be critical of something Google does.
It isn’t just Mozilla, though. WebKit is used by Apple’s Safari browser, and the WebKit development team had a lot to say about the new API. Ryosuke Niwa, an Apple software engineer who works on WebKit, had this to say:
That does not appear to be a compelling use case for this API. For starters, there’s no guarantee that the user won’t return to the device right away. Also, how is a service like this intended to know what other devices a user is utilising at any one time?”
We’ll have to wait and watch how Chrome developers implement this new API. It could turn out to be a complete privacy nightmare—or it could be a non-issue.