Guide: How to Enable/Dis­able Site Iso­la­tion in Chrome Browser

By now you have probably heard of ‘Specter’, the ominous security flaw that affects almost all modern CPUs. And rightly so, given that the vulnerability revolves around nefarious applications and websites that access data from areas where they shouldn’t. To deal specifically with this problem, browsers have developed various security mechanisms, and one such Chrome-specific implementation is Site Isolation. First introduced in Chrome v63 as an optional security featureSite Isolation now runs by default since version 67. Technically it is quite adept at mitigating speculative execution attacks (on which Specter is based) due to the sandboxing processes it uses. But like anything good, it comes at a price – to be specific, performance. Would disabling site isolation improve the way Chrome functions? Is it worth the tradeoff in security? Let’s find out.

Specter and location isolation

Just like any other browser, Google Chrome allows you to open multiple websites with different tabs. Before the implementation of Site Isolation, tabs were used to share common processes – which makes sense since duplicate tasks would be a waste of system resources. However, that’s a situation ideal for a malicious attack based on flawed CPU design – Specter. Modern microprocessors use speculative execution to preload data from the system memory to the significantly faster CPU cache as a means of improving overall performance. However, this presents a unique opportunity for malicious code to trick the CPU into fetching sensitive data in its cache using shared processes. Once the data is in the CPU cache, it becomes unprotected (unlike the system memory) and can be easily stolen.

Let’s say you have a few tabs open: one with your bank account and the other with any site. In theory, provided it has malicious intent, the latter can dive into the CPU cache used by the first tab, then load and read information ranging from credentials to cryptographic keys. While it is quite difficult to imagine such an incident happening due to limited CPU cache (which is only a small part compared to the system memory), malicious code instead determines exactly what data to steal due to the difference between CPU compare access speeds. After all, if things are going faster than normal, it’s because the data is already in the CPU cache due to accurate speculation.

When the Specter vulnerability was discovered, browsers started using various workarounds (such as lower resolution timers to reduce the accuracy of determining CPU access speeds) to throw off targeted attacks. However, they are not a perfect means of countering Specter-based threats, hence the reason for Site Isolation. Site isolation, as the name suggests, completely isolates tabs from each other by creating separate processes for all iframes (embedded external links), including the processes common to other tabs. Since shared processes play a large role in helping Site Isolation monitor and read information from other tabs, Site Isolation’s use of independent processes works well in mitigating such vulnerabilities. Looking at our previous example, with Site Isolation enabled, your bank account portal works on a completely different process and doesn’t share anything comparable to the other tab. This ‘isolation’ minimizes the chance of stealing information in the event of a breach.

Increased memory

So you have to ask yourself if Site Isolation is compromising performance because of the extra system memory used up through each independent process – browser tab. According to the Google Online Security Blog, the security implementation uses up up to 10-13% more RAM than when the feature is not active in the first place. Let’s see how accurate this figure is in practice. If site isolation is not enabled, the screenshot below shows some websites that use many similar iframes. Only the two tabs have separate running tasks, with no independent processes for the iframes. Note: The screenshots are displayed with Chrome’s built-in Task Manager. To access it, open the Chrome menu, point to More tools, then click Task Manager.

The same pair of tabs, with Site Isolation enabled, are shown in the following screenshot. As you can see, there has been a significant increase in the number of additional processes due to the iframes used by each site. Furthermore, similar processes are further split into two to reduce the chances of a successful speculative execution attack. Doing the math (without considering the Browser and GPU process tasks) will terminate both sites up use about 33% more memory.

Memory usage is significantly higher than what Google says. However, think of the 10-13% figure more as a long-term average. Sites, and even individual web pages, differ from time to time in the number of processes and memory required. Hence, the above scenario can be considered an outlier. Either way, site isolation results in a moderate, or in this case, significant increase in memory overhead.

Security versus performance

However, turning off site isolation will reduce memory usage and possibly improve performance on low-end devices. However, Chrome is quite adept at managing available memory by suspending unused tabs. Since memory usage varies drastically from site to site, there is no definitive answer. On devices with a high system memory, the differences in performance are negligible. Tip Moreover, you can take it upon yourself to manually manage tabs from clogging up memory using extensions such as The Great Discarder and The Great Suspender. But here’s the catch. Over time, due to the implementation of Site Isolation, Chrome would have to drop existing countermeasures against Specter attacks. Hence, disabling it will cause even more exposure to malicious attacks.

We weigh the two up, the potential vulnerabilities posed by Specter, combined with the ever-increasing use of personal information, makes disabling Site Isolation a bad idea. Unless you are surfing on a low-end machine and don’t use any personal data at all, only then should you even consider disabling this essential security feature

Turn off site isolation

Turning off site isolation exposes your computer to significant security risks. However, if you want to go ahead and get it feature, below are the specific steps on how to do that. Warning: When Site Isolation is turned off, you may not use personal browsing data on any website. The same goes for storing sensitive information in Chrome, such as passwords. Step 1: Type chrome: // flags in a new tab and press Enter to open the experimental Chrome flags.

Step 2: Type Site Isolation in the search bar and press Enter.

Step 3: You should see two Chrome flags named Strict Site Isolation and Site Isolation Trial Opt Out.

Set the Strict Site Isolation flag to Disabled. For specific devices this is set to Disabled by default. If so, you don’t need to do anything. Set the Logout flag Site isolation trial to Logout (not recommended).

Then click Restart Now to apply the changes. Step 5: Site isolation is now disabled. Type chrome: // process-internals in a new tab to verify this, then press Enter.

Site isolation mode should be read as Disabled to indicate confirmation. To enable Site Isolation at a later date, go back and change the flags to their original state and restart Chrome.

No, it is not worth the risk

Disable a critical Chrome protection feature such as Site Isolation to reduce memory usage is not guaranteed. Especially considering how each site uses memory differently. So, you shouldn’t look for marginal performance improvements that might come at the expense of your personal information. If you’re struggling with performance, you can always consider using an alternative browser like Firefox Quantum, which has a much smaller memory footprint compared to Chrome, before rushing into anything.

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