Amazon devices such as Ring cameras and Echo speakers will automatically opt-in to Amazon Sidewalk starting Tuesday, raising concerns from some privacy experts and politicians.
Amazon Sidewalk is a shared neighborhood network meant to expand and boost wireless connection for small Internet of Things devices around the home, such as outdoor lights and pet trackers. Amazon lists each device that will become compatible with Sidewalk on its website.
Devices will act as “bridges” of internet connectivity. It works using Bluetooth and the 900 MHz spectrum to take a portion of bandwidth from nearby devices to create the “mesh” shared network, according to Amazon’s website. Sidewalk will support third-party devices from companies such as Tile and Level.
Amazon Sidewalk is built around the idea of taking a customer’s private wireless infrastructure and internet connections and allocating a portion of it for (semi-) public use.
Ryan Calo, a professor at the University of Washington and privacy law expert, said from a privacy point of view, best practice would be to give users the option to affirmatively opt-in rather than automatically turning it on.
Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler wrote: “Sidewalk raises more red flags than a marching band parade: Is it secure enough to be activated in so many homes? Are we helping Amazon build a vast network that can be used for more surveillance? And why didn’t Amazon ask us to opt-in before activating a capability lying dormant in our devices?
I recommend you opt out of Sidewalk, too, until we get much better answers to these questions.”
New York Times contributor Kara Swisher, speaking to CNBC, added: “You shouldn’t have to share things without being asked to share them.”
Connecticut Attorney General William Tong on Monday recommended people to opt-out “unless fully confident their privacy and security will be protected.”
Here’s how to opt out of Sidewalk:
- Open your Alexa app.
- Open more, and select settings.
- Select “Account settings.”
- Select “Amazon Sidewalk.”
- Turn Amazon Sidewalk “On” or “Off.”
From a privacy perspective, Calo said Amazon Sidewalk extends the range of “some pretty invasive home surveillance techniques.”
“[If] you’re concerned about cameras everywhere that are potentially even shared in partnership with law enforcement, if you’re worried about a public/private surveillance state, this probably helps enable that stuff,” Calo said.
Calo said Sidewalk wouldn’t diminish security that a user already has, and it doesn’t introduce any new security vulnerabilities.
However, he said though the program is labeled free, there are costs associated with it.
“There are costs of bandwidth, and there are costs of privacy,” Calo said. “…To say that it is costless and totally privacy-friendly is wrong.”
Taking a portion of bandwidth can compromise a wireless network’s performance, Calo said. The more people on a network, the slower it may run.
Amazon answered questions about data security last year in a whitepaper describing Sidewalk’s privacy and security protocols. The company offered some detail on network sharing at the time: “The maximum bandwidth of a Sidewalk Bridge to the Sidewalk server is 80Kbps, which is about 1/40th of the bandwidth used to stream a typical high definition video. Today, total monthly data used by Sidewalk enabled devices, per customer, is capped at 500MB, which is equivalent to streaming about 10 minutes of high definition video.”
The automatic opt-in model is similar to what Comcast did with its “XfinitywiFi” offering in 2014, as described by GeekWire contributor Christopher Budd in December. But unlike Comcast, Amazon has laid out on its site how to opt out of it, Budd noted.
“While Amazon is following Comcast’s lead with the ‘forced opt-in’ model, their handling shows that they clearly recognize there are significant risks with this approach around clarity of notice, privacy concerns, and the ability to, if not opt-out, at least turn off the feature,” Budd wrote.
In a blog post published last month, Amazon again addressed data security and privacy.
“With multiple layers of privacy and security, Sidewalk was built to keep your data secure and provide you control of your experience,” Amazon said in its blog post. “Data shared over the Sidewalk network is protected with three layers of encryption, only accessible by the devices you choose, and automatically deleted every 24 hours to protect your privacy.”
Amazon Sidewalk general manager Manolo Arana told CNET last month: “In the end, you won’t have any information about your neighbor’s bridge, and your neighbor won’t have any information about your device. So there is always this level of minimizing the information that can go across layers.”
In a statement sent to GeekWire on Monday, Amazon said: “We believe Amazon Sidewalk will provide value for every customer such as more reliable connections, easier troubleshooting, and extended range for their devices such as smart lights, pet locators or smart locks. We also recognize customers appreciate choice and control which is why they can enable or disable their Amazon Sidewalk settings at any time.”
Amazon originally announced Sidewalk in 2019.
“It’s a completely new way of thinking about intermediate-range wireless,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told reporters at the time. “There are a lot of things where Bluetooth is way too short-range, WiFi is way too high power, and so to have something that’s still low-power, but that has much longer range is really a gap in the marketplace. … People don’t even realize yet how important that intermediate range is going to be.”