When Amazon first sent me their Echo product in early 2015, I was impressed. The Echo is the speaker that’s listens to verbal requests and provides intelligent answers, much like an audio version of Google search. I’d ask it for the traffic report, the local news, or requested that it play some favorite songs, and, like magic, I’d get an instantaneous response. But after a few months of use the novelty wore off and my skepticism set in. I couldn’t accept the idea of an always-on microphone connected to Amazon’s cloud listening to every word I spoke.
Amazon was offering a service, much like Google does: give up some privacy for some other benefits. In my case, having an always-on microphone was not worth the Echo’s benefits. Of course, I was in the minority, and the product has been hugely successful, now imbedded in hundreds of different devices as both a hardware and software form, some now even with video. Similar products have been introduced by Google, Facebook and Apple.
Now, with millions of these devices in use, Amazon is turning them into something new without asking for authorization. On June 8, Amazon will use Echo-enabled products to create an outdoor wireless network called Amazon Sidewalk. The service turns Echoes, Ring doorbells and cameras, and other Amazon devices into a mesh network using a portion of yours and your neighbors’ internet services. (Amazon now owns Ring, Eero and other networked devices.)
According to Amazon, this new network is designed to provide connectivity to other Sidewalk devices that might not otherwise be connected in order to help your neighbors, as well as helping yourself, should your network be down. Here’s how Amazon explains it:
[Sidewalk is] “a shared network that helps devices work better. Operated by Amazon at no charge to customers, Sidewalk can help simplify new device setup, 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 the range of their home wifi. In the future, Sidewalk will support a range of experiences from using Sidewalk-enabled devices, such as smart security and lighting and diagnostics for appliances and tools.”
Amazon “borrows” a portion of our bandwidth and that of our neighbors to create this network. They won’t use more than 80Kbps, about 10% of what you need to surf the Internet and 3% for streaming a Netflix video. Monthly caps are 500MB.
If you don’t opt out each of your devices, you’ll automatically become enrolled. The specific Sidewalk devices that are being enabled include the Ring Doorbell, Ring Floodlight Cam, Ring Spotlight Cam Wired, Ring Spotlight Cam Mount; third gen and newer Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Dot for Kids, and Echo Dot with Clock; Echo Plus, Echo Show, Echo Spot, Echo Studio, Echo Input, and Echo Flex.
Why is this a concern? Amazon’s explanation for why they’re doing this – to help us keep our devices connected – is not plausible. It’s certainly not a reason that justifies the cost they are going to. Also, consider the risk they are creating. WiFi networks are notoriously insecure, and easily penetrable, adding further risk. They seem to be solving a problem that doesn’t exist.
And if my network is down, it’s possible my neighbor’s would be as well. Under these circumstances, there are bigger issues than whether my Echo or doorbell works. There is more to this that Amazon has not disclosed. Is it possible this new Amazon network could be used to collect all sorts of private information outside of our homes?
Consider the wealth of details Amazon devices are privy to with their current devices: They see who knocks on our doors, hears conversations, and control the locks and other security systems in our home. And, of course, they know what we buy. Sidewalk now can extend that reach to our neighborhoods.
Privacy research consultant, Ashkan Soltani notes, “In addition to capturing everyone’s shopping habits (from amazon.com) and their internet activity (as AWS is one of the most dominant web hosting services)… now they are also effectively becoming a global ISP with a flick of a switch, all without even having to lay a single foot of fiber.”
Amazon may, in fact, be creating a clever new technology that could benefit us , but by not being forthcoming, I remain suspicious that they have plans afoot to monetize our outdoor activities in ways we can’t yet imagine.
Here is how to opt our from your Echo.
- Open the Alexa app
- Open More and selecting Settings
- Select Account Settings
- Select Amazon Sidewalk
- Turn Amazon Sidewalk Off
Or even better, as one reader suggested: Unplug your Echo and delete the app.