You’re now a little closer to your neighbors – and you may not even know it.
Starting Tuesday, Amazon automatically enrolled eligible Echo and other devices into a feature called Sidewalk. It enables the company to share small snippets of your Internet connection with those nearby, creating what Amazon calls a “low-bandwidth network” that can keep devices connected even if you lose Wi-Fi in your home.
Ring security cameras are already imbued with Sidewalk, and older devices for Tile – which offers Bluetooth trackers for your wallet and keys – went live on Tuesday, with its newer offerings joining on June 14.
Amazon, of course, touts it all as a positive. It will supposedly keep smartlights and locks humming even if they dip out of your network’s range. It could allow your security cameras to detect motion without Wi-Fi, and the pinging, interconnected devices in your neighborhood could help you locate lost items, the company claims.
Privacy advocates take a different view.
Multiple cybersecurity officials told St. Louis television station KSDK this week that Sidewalk could hypothetically make your Wi-Fi more susceptible to hackers. And the Internet has been awash in articles on how users can opt-out of the feature altogether (we’ll get to that in a second).
Here are a few things to know.
Does this affect me?
Only if you’re one of the millions and millions of people who own an Amazon-brand smart speaker in the United States. So yeah: probably.
USA Today offered a full list of affected devices. Basically, if you’ve bought an Echo in the last three years or so, you’re enrolled.
You say I’m sharing my Internet connection. What do you mean?
Neighbors aren’t signing into your Wi-Fi.
Instead, Sidewalk filters small amounts of your Internet bandwidth into the surrounding community, shooting your data through your neighbors’ devices and vice-versa. That will allow users’ eligible devices to connect to a network if they can’t access traditional WiFi.
Sidewalk users allegedly wouldn’t know what device is providing the data, or where exactly it’s coming from, the New York Times reported.
Amazon claims any information wafting from your device goes through at least three levels of encryption, keeping neighbors or Amazon employees from, say, accessing a live feed from your doorbell camera.
According to the Washington Post, the signal is apparently less powerful than what it takes to stream video, limiting what users can do with it.
How do I opt out?
For Ring security cameras, you can find directions on the company’s website. (Amazon owns them, too.)
For Echo devices, you’ll need the “Alexa” app – which you probably have downloaded to your phone. Open the app and click the “more” button at the bottom right. From there, click on “account settings” and then “Amazon Sidewalk.”
Under two long paragraphs explaining what Sidewalk does, you’ll find a blue slider that says “enabled.” Slide it the other way until it reads “disabled.”
Why was I opted-in in the first place?
An Amazon spokesperson told Vox’s Recode that the company made enrollment automatic for the customers’ benefit.
Like every other tech company, though, Amazon does everything it can to mine users’ data. It hasn’t said how it’ll use information it garners from Sidewalk, but researcher Pardis Emami-Naeini said the automatic enrollment may be a way to make users comfortable with yet another use of their data, thereby allowing Amazon to expand Sidewalk’s reach in the future.
“It’s usually the case that, currently, they might not have a good use case for this,” she told Vox. “But then later, they would find some really good use cases for the data, and then they would just benefit from it. And then they would increase the scale.”
Is there anything to be worried about?
Reports in the Times, Vox and others mentioned that the data sharing could cost you more money if you’re enrolled in a capped plan.
Then there’s the question of how secure this actually is – especially if a determined hacker tried to infiltrate it.
“I haven’t seen very many triple-protected, triple-encrypted systems out there,” tech analyst Patrick Moorhead told the Washington Post. “That said, there’s no infallible system.”
Beyond that, the main concern is loss of privacy. Ring cameras have increasingly become tools of police surveillance over the years, and with smartphones tracking our every move, it’s becoming more and more difficult to escape technology’s grip.
Especially Amazon’s. In a column lambasting Sidewalk, the Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler had to repeatedly remind readers that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns his paper, too.
“Remotely activating our devices to build a closed Internet of Amazon,” he wrote, “is not OK.”
Contact Jon Webb at [email protected]