Amazon is building a wireless network – using your internet bandwidth.
It's called Amazon Sidewalk, and the company touts it as a way to help its devices work better, by extending the range of low-bandwidth devices to help them stay online.
It does that by pooling neighbors' bandwidth to help connectivity for devices that are out of range.
The network already includes certain Ring Floodlight Cam and Spotlight models as of late last year. Compatible Amazon Echo devices will be added to the network on Tuesday. Ring Doorbell Pro devices will be able to access Sidewalk, too.
Amazon's size almost guarantees Amazon Sidewalk will soon be in widespread use.
Here's how it works.
Let's say you and your next-door neighbors both have devices that Amazon has added to its Sidewalk scheme, and neither of you have opted out.
Your neighbors decide to put a Ring security camera on their garage, but the device is too far from their Wi-Fi router to get a good signal. Perhaps your router is closer, or you pay for better connectivity. Their camera will be able to send small amounts of data using your Internet bandwidth.
Amazon says the maximum bandwidth of a device on the Sidewalk server is 80 kilobits per second, or about 1/40th of the bandwidth used to stream a typical high-definition video. The total monthly data used by Sidewalk-enabled devices, per customer, is capped at 500 megabytes, which Amazon says is equivalent to streaming about 10 minutes of high-definition video.
Amazon's system is setting off yet another debate about internet privacy
Amazon says that customers' privacy and security are "foundational" to how it has built Amazon Sidewalk. The network has three layers of encryption and has protections to keep customers from viewing data from others' Sidewalk-enabled devices. Amazon also put together a white paper outlining Sidewalk's privacy and security measures.
But some privacy and security experts are still concerned.
"I feel like the bigger motivation here is to create a private surveillance network. I suspect they're seeing this as a real opportunity for kind of bridging all these different Ring devices in particular," says Jen King, privacy and data policy fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.
Ashkan Soltani, a privacy expert and the former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission, sees Sidewalk as yet another realm Amazon is seeking to dominate.
"In addition to capturing everyone's shopping habits (from amazon.com) and their internet activity (as [Amazon Web Services] is one of the most dominant web hosting services) ... now they are also effectively becoming a global [internet service provider] with a flick of a switch, all without even having to lay a single foot of fiber," Soltani told technology news site Ars Technica.
Why is Amazon adding devices to these shared networks automatically, rather than getting permission from device owners?
Instead of trying to sell device owners on the merits of joining the program, Amazon adds devices to the shared network unless owners go through the steps to opt out.
"The fact that this thing is opt-out rather than opt-in is always a big red flag," Stanford's King says. And she isn't convinced by the warm and fuzzy applications of Sidewalk that Amazon describes, such as helping find lost keys or helping people with dementia.
The company says it's all in the customer's interest.
An Amazon spokesperson says the company "believe[s] Sidewalk will provide value for every customer and we want to make it is easy for them to take advantage of benefits such as more reliable connections, extended working range for their devices, easier troubleshooting and no additional connectivity costs to customers."
And customers can decide to opt out at any time, the spokesperson says. If you opt out, your connection won't be pooled, and you can't draw from the pool, either.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Amazon Sidewalk uses Wi-Fi to transmit data. It uses Bluetooth and other protocols.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Amazon has figured out how to make its smart home gear, like its Echo and Ring devices, work better outside, where internet service can be spotty. Its solution is called Sidewalk, and the way it works has privacy experts worried. NPR's Laurel Wamsley reports, and we should note, Amazon is among NPR's financial supporters.
LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Here's how Sidewalk extends the internet range of Amazon devices.
PAT MOORHEAD: It essentially crowdsources data from other people on the network. You're using their network, and they're using your network in the event of a Wi-Fi outage or poor signal.
WAMSLEY: That's Pat Moorhead, a tech analyst who has been briefed on Sidewalk by Amazon, one of his clients. Amazon did not make a spokesperson available for this story. Say you and your next-door neighbors both have devices that are compatible with Sidewalk. Your neighbors decide to put a Ring security camera on their garage, but the device is too far from the router to always get a good signal. Their camera will be able to send small amounts of data, like an image or notifications, using your connection.
MOORHEAD: But I can't stream video in real time off of it because the bandwidth is so narrow.
WAMSLEY: Amazon says only your neighbors and not you would be able to see their data because there are three layers of encryption. Amazon's Echo smart speakers were added to the network this week. Some Ring devices had already been added. Trackers from the company Tile, which are used to find lost keys or pets, will also be able to connect to the network. Privacy experts have a number of concerns about the applications of Sidewalk, as well as how Amazon rolled it out. For one thing, it uses your internet connection unless you take action to block it.
JEN KING: The fact that this thing is opt-out rather than opt-in is always a big red flag.
WAMSLEY: That's Jen King, a privacy and data policy expert at Stanford University. She notes that Amazon just automatically added people's devices, forcing customers to hunt through layers of settings to opt out if they don't want their bandwidth used by the network. And King isn't convinced by the warm and fuzzy applications of Sidewalk that Amazon describes.
KING: To me, it's especially telling when they do things like emphasize the fact that you can use it to locate your lost pets or things that you've, you know, otherwise misplaced because I feel like the bigger motivation here is to create a private surveillance network.
WAMSLEY: Matthew Guariglia, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, agrees.
MATTHEW GUARIGLIA: It begins with one doorbell camera on the front of your house, and then it extends to more stick-up cameras. It extends to cameras inside the home. It would not surprise me if in the next year or two, Sidewalk becomes a huge avenue by which they can extend that surveillance out into the neighborhood.
WAMSLEY: He suspects Sidewalk might be used in the future to provide internet connectivity for Amazon delivery drones, even in rural areas. The network extends half a mile from an enabled device. And as Sidewalk extends connectivity to Tile tracking devices beyond your Wi-Fi network, there are worries for victims of domestic violence or stalking.
GUARIGLIA: The concern is that you can slip a Tile or a tag into somebody's purse and track them as they go about their day.
WAMSLEY: A spokesperson for Tile says they are working on a fix for this issue. Guariglia says people should think about how much audio, video and data all of these Amazon devices are collecting and sending to Amazon servers.
GUARIGLIA: And as long as it's sitting there and it's unencrypted, it is accessible to the police and to governments if they bring a warrant to Amazon. And it is unclear whether or not you will even know if Amazon has received a warrant for your data.
WAMSLEY: It's a big warning, he says, about putting one of these devices in or on your home. Laurel Walmsley, NPR News.
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