Amazon devices will soon automatically share your internet with your neighbors
If you’re using Alexa, Echo, or any other Amazon device, you only have 10 days to opt out of an experience that leaves your privacy and security hanging.
On June 8, the merchant, web host and entertainment monster will automatically enroll devices in Amazonian sidewalk. The new wireless mesh service will share a small slice of your internet bandwidth with nearby neighbors who have no connectivity and help you use their bandwidth when you have no connection.
By default, Amazon devices including Alexa, Echo, Ring, security cameras, outdoor lights, motion sensors, and tile trackers will enroll in the system. And since only a tiny fraction of people take the time to change the default settings, that means millions of people will be co-opted into the program whether they know it or not. The Amazon web page linked above states that Sidewalk “is currently only available in the United States.”
The web page also states:
What is Amazon Sidewalk?
Amazon Sidewalk is a shared network that helps devices run better. Operated by Amazon at no cost to customers, Sidewalk can help simplify the setup of new devices, extend the low-bandwidth working range of devices to help find pets or valuables with Tile trackers, and help devices stay online even if they are outside of their home wifi range. Going forward, Sidewalk will support a range of experiences related to using Sidewalk-enabled devices, such as smart security and lighting, and device and tool diagnostics.
How will Amazon Sidewalk impact my personal wireless bandwidth and data usage?
The maximum bandwidth from a Sidewalk Bridge to the Sidewalk server is 80 Kbps, or about 1/40 of the bandwidth used to stream typical high definition video. Today, when you share your Bridge connection with Sidewalk, the total monthly data used by Sidewalk, per account, is capped at 500MB, which is equivalent to streaming approximately 10 minutes of high definition video.
Why should I participate in Amazon Sidewalk?
Amazon Sidewalk helps your devices connect and stay connected. For example, if your Echo device loses its wifi connection, Sidewalk can make it easier to reconnect to your router. For some Ring devices, you may continue to receive motion alerts from your Ring security cameras, and customer support can still resolve issues even if your devices lose their Wi-Fi connection. Sidewalk may also extend your operating range. Sidewalk-enabled devices, such as Smart Ring Lights, Animal Locators, or Smart Locks, so they can stay connected and keep working longer distances. Amazon does not charge any fees for joining Sidewalk.
Amazon released a white paper detailing the technical foundations and terms of service that she believes will protect the privacy and security of this daring venture. To be fair, the document is fairly comprehensive, and so far no one has reported any specific flaws that compromise the encryption or other protective measures in place. But there are enough theoretical risks to make users think.
Wireless technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth have a history of insecurity. Remember WEP, the encryption system that protected Wi-Fi traffic from surveillance by nearby parties? It was used extensively for four years before researchers revealed flaws that made decryption of data relatively easy for attackers. WPA, the technology that replaced WEP, is much more robust, but it also has a checkered history. Bluetooth has also had its share of similar vulnerabilities over the years, either in the Bluetooth standard or in the way it is implemented in various products.
If industry standard wireless technologies have such a poor track record, why do we have to believe that a proprietary wireless system will have a better one?
The almighty juggernaut
Next, consider the wealth of intimate details that Amazon devices have access to. They see who is knocking on our doors and, in some houses, they scan our living rooms. They hear the conversations we have with friends and family. They control the locks and other security systems in our home.
Extending the reach of all this encrypted data to the sidewalk and neighboring living rooms requires a level of trust that is not guaranteed for technology that has never been tested on a large scale.
Finally, let’s not forget who offers this new way for everyone to share and share in the same way. As Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher, explains: “In addition to capturing everyone’s shopping habits (on amazon.com) and their internet activity (since AWS is one of the services of Most Dominant Web Hosting) … Global ISPs with the flip of a switch, all without even having to lay a single foot of fiber. “
Amazon’s decision to make Sidewalk an opt-out rather than an opt-in is also telling. The company knows that the only chance the service will gain critical mass is to enable it by default, so that’s what it does. Fortunately, turn off Sidewalk is relatively painless. That implies:
- Opening the Alexa app
- Open More and select settings
- Select account settings
- Amazon Sidewalk Selection
- Disable Amazon Sidewalk
There is no doubt that the benefits of Sidewalk for some people will outweigh the risks. But for most, if not the vast majority of users, there are few advantages and many disadvantages. Amazon representatives did not respond to a request for comment.