New Chrome update brings surveillance debate

Google Chrome 94 is here and it has introduced a controversial idle detection API. For those people that do not know what idle detection API is, well basically Chrome can be asked by a website to report when a user of the site has a site open and is idle on the device. The issue that people have with this is that this particular feature can be used to report when the user is not using a computer at all.

chrome idle detection featureGood thing is that website or web application will prompt you to allow it to use this feature like when a site/application wants to use your microphone or web camera. Developers are on board with this feature since it can provide them with more telemetric data on how users are interacting with their website/application but there are some that are strongly voicing against this.

Tantek Çelik, Mozilla Standards Lead, commented on GitHub, saying:

As it is currently specified, I consider the Idle Detection API too tempting of an opportunity for surveillance capitalism motivated websites to invade an aspect of the user’s physical privacy, keep long-term records of physical user behaviors, discerning daily rhythms (e.g. lunchtime), and using that for proactive psychological manipulation (e.g. hunger, emotion, choice)…

Thus I propose labeling this API harmful and encourage further incubation, perhaps reconsidering simpler, less-invasive alternative approaches to solve the motivating use-cases.

Others who have spoken against this feature are people from the WebKit development team inside Apple. Ryosuke Niwa, an Apple software engineer who works on WebKit said:

That doesn’t seem like a strong enough use case for this API. For starters, there is no guarantee that the user won’t immediately come back to the device. Also, who is such a service supposed to know what another device user might be using at any given point? We’re definitely not going to let a website know all the devices a given user might be using at any given point. That’s a very serious breach of the said user’s privacy. It seems to me that such a suppression/distribution mechanism is best left for the underlying operating systems/web browsers to handle.

Of course, technology itself as always can be used for good or for bad and time will tell if this feature has brought good stuff or it has paved another brick in surveillance and privacy manipulation. As said for now option will prompt for agreement and let’s hope that it will be used for good causes from this day into the future.

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