An Echo, left, and an Echo Plus were among the new Amazon products announced in 2017. On Tuesday, June 8, 2021, Amazon launched an application that forces users of many Echo-smart speakers and Ring security cameras to automatically share a small portion of their wireless bandwidth with neighbors. The only way to stop it is to turn it off yourself. (Elaine Thompson, Associated Press)
NEW YORK (AP) – Do you own an Amazon smart device? If so, the odds are good that the company is already sharing your internet connection with your neighbors unless you have specifically asked them not to do so.
On Tuesday, the company launched a program that forces users of many Echo-smart speakers and Ring security cameras to automatically share a small portion of their wireless home bandwidth with neighbors. The only way to stop it is to turn it off yourself.
Amazon says the program called the Amazon Sidewalk is a way to ensure that lights, smart locks and other gadgets outside the home and out of reach of a Wi-Fi connection remain in operation.
But some experts warn that the technology is so new that privacy and security risks remain unclear. And almost no one seems happy that Amazon forced consumers onto the Amazon Sidewalk ̵
Did Amazon tell customers this happened?
Amazon says it sent emails to customers last month and in November that Sidewalk was coming. The company says you also get a notification when you create gadgets that work with Sidewalk.
How can I stop this?
Once you are aware of this, it is relatively straightforward, if not downright simple, to opt out of Sidewalk. Echo users can go into the Alexa app, tap “More” in the lower right corner, then tap “Settings,” then “Account Settings,” where they’ll find a section for Amazon Sidewalk and a button to disable it. In the Call app, go to “Control Center” and then tap “Sidewalk”.
Why is Amazon doing this?
The idea behind Sidewalk is to integrate wireless home connections into a “mesh network” that can extend coverage to areas where home Wi-Fi cannot reach. Amazon’s Echo and Ring devices tie together to create this network by grabbing a piece of bandwidth from each home cooperative network. It can extend the range of devices designed to work with the Sidewalk so that they stay connected even when away from your home network.
An example of such a device is the Tile, a tracking device that can be placed on keys or a dog’s collar. If your dog disappears in a neighborhood where Sidewalk works, it may show up quickly via Tile.
Other products that work with Sidewalk include smart locks that can be controlled by phone and portable devices that can track people with dementia who can walk. Amazon expects additional devices, including outdoor lights and motion detectors, to work with the Sidewalk soon.
How does it work?
Amazon uses a number of radio technologies, including one called LoRa – for its long range – and better known for industrial and business applications such as keeping cattle roaming through grasslands.
“The goal here is not to create coverage for a single home,” said Marc Pegulu of chipmaker Semtech, which works with Amazon on the technology. “It’s kind of a shared network, a common shared network.”
Among other things, devices connected to the shared network can allegedly search for the best signal in a way that can preserve their battery life.
Thomas Clausen, a computer science professor at France’s École Polytechnique, says the network Amazon is creating could be a good thing, provided it is open and accessible because it would make it easier and cheaper to use Internet-connected devices and sensors and spark new innovations.
“But of course, when a behemoth like Amazon or Apple or Google or Microsoft creates a platform, they can also end up controlling the platform, and that can stifle innovation,” he says.
What are the risks?
Hackers could potentially infiltrate home networks via the Sidewalk, said Eric Null, a political leader at the digital rights group Access Now. If that happens, Null said, hackers could observe everything you do, take over your devices, or access your files to steal information.
“It’s only a matter of time before someone’s network is hacked and data is broken,” Null said.
William Tong, Connecticut’s attorney general, warned consumers this week that the program was “unknown territory” and that people should opt out of the Sidewalk unless they are confident their privacy and security will be protected.
“Wireless networks are already notoriously vulnerable to hacking and hacking,” Tong wrote in a statement. “Families need better information and more time before giving up some of their bandwidth for this new system.”
What does Amazon say?
Asked about privacy and security issues, an Amazon spokesman said he could not respond to “hypothetical situations.” The company did not respond to a request to make a director available for an interview, but said data flowing through its network has three layers of encryption designed to prevent hackers from seeing it.
Samir Jain, director of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said Amazon’s efforts to encrypt data were a good step. But Jain said it is difficult to identify security vulnerabilities until a new technology is implemented in the real world.
Which devices will share my internet?
Echo devices that share network bandwidth via Sidewalk include third generation and newer versions of Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Dot for Kids, and Echo Dot with Clock. Echo Show 5, 8, 10; second generation Echo Show; Echo spot; Echo Plus; Echo Studio; Echo input; Echo Flex.
Sidewalk-enabled Ring devices include the Ring Floodlight Cam; Ring Spotlight Cam Cable; and Call Spotlight Cam Mount.
Does Amazon have bigger ambitions?
Amazon has explained Sidewalk in the context of consumer devices like cameras and speakers. But it could also one day integrate technology into its core business: the delivery of goods.
For example, the company was able to integrate small Internet-connected devices into cardboard packages to help track them, Clausen of the École Polytechnique said.
“Having integration of alarm systems, presence detection of whether people are there or not, may allow Amazon to create more efficient delivery schedules and fewer re-deliveries,” he says. It may be an application that Amazon is considering, he added.
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