Amazon faces a privacy backlash for its Sidewalk feature, which turns Alexa devices into neighborhood Wi-Fi networks that owners have to opt-out of to get rid of the problem.
First announced in 2019, Amazon launched Sidewalk, a new feature designed to keep smart devices connected beyond the reach of the typical Wi-Fi router.
According to the Amazon website: “Amazon Sidewalk is a shared network, coming later this year, that helps devices like Amazon Echo devices, Ring Security Cams, outdoor lights, and motion sensors work better at home and beyond the front door.”
However, privacy concerns have already arisen despite Sidewalk not even being live yet. Just last week, Amazon customers have been informed that, not only existing Echo devices will have this Sidewalk connectivity enabled by default, but that the feature will also connect Alexa devices to nearby WiFi networks, even those owned by others.
“But well before Sidewalk launches, we will notify existing customers with eligible Bridge devices so they can consider the benefits of Sidewalk before deciding if they want to change their preferences,” an Amazon representative said in an emailed statement. “After all existing customers are notified, all customers setting up a Sidewalk Bridge for the first time will have the opportunity to enable Sidewalk during device setup. All customers will have the option to change their Sidewalk preferences anytime in their Alexa app or Ring Control Center settings.”
“These Bridge devices share a small portion of your internet bandwidth which is pooled together to provide these services to you and your neighbors,” Amazon said on a launch page. “And when more neighbors participate, the network becomes even stronger.”
According to Amazon, Sidewalk uses a small fraction of the Wi-Fi bandwidth to pass wireless low-energy Bluetooth and 900MHz radio signals between compatible devices. And in some cases, this applies across far greater distances than regular Wi-Fi connections, even as far as half a mile.
And not all concerns could turn out to be unfounded once Sidewalk officially launches. Ian Thornton-Trump, the chief information security officer at Cyjax, a leading technology company offering Digital Threat Intelligence and Incident Response services, stated via Forbes that the launch was:
“Deeply problematic from a privacy perspective and attack surface perspective. It’s an interesting solution to Amazon product performance issues with many of their IoT devices located on the fringes of home Wi-Fi setups. The ‘on by default’ approach is not consumer-friendly. ‘No one rides on my Wi-fi for free,’ especially a giant corporation with billions of dollars. The ‘on by default’ approach is not consumer-friendly,” Thornton-Trump continued. “‘No one rides on my WiFi for free,’ especially a giant corporation with billions of dollars.”
Others were equally skeptical of whether such a network could and would keep user data private. Alan Woodward, an internationally renowned computer security expert who specializes in cybersecurity, told BBC News that Sidewalk should be an opt-in feature, adding, “It feels wrong not knowing what your device is connected to.”
Amazon had anticipated such privacy concerns and published a research paper called “Amazon Sidewalk Privacy and Security Whitepaper” detailing the technology behind the new feature and the lengths Amazon is willing to go to keep user data private. In the conclusion of the research paper, Amazon By sharing a small portion of their home network bandwidth, neighbors give a little—but get a lot in return.
“As a crowdsourced capability, security and privacy are foundational principles designed into all aspects of Sidewalk. Amazon Sidewalk is just one of many programs demonstrating Amazon’s continued commitment to improving the overall experience of smart devices for our customers.”
According to a tweet from Amazon Help, the service will only be available in the US, news also confirmed by an Amazon spokesperson via BBC:
“We recently began emailing customers with Echo devices registered in the US to give them more information about Amazon Sidewalk. This service will only be available in the US when it launches. We apologize for any confusion.”