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Amazon's New Sidewalk Feature Sparks Privacy Concerns: Here's Why

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Brooke Lynch
06/07/2021

Contact center news, customer experience, CX trends, call center challenges

Starting June 8, Amazon will now turn all of its Echo devices and Ring security systems into ‘bridges’ that connect on a larger shared wireless network. Amazon’s new Sidewalk service aims to keep devices better connected and simplify setup by extending the range of low-bandwidth devices through “mesh networks”.

These “mesh networks” simply mean that by setting up an Echo or Ring device, users’ will be contributing a portion of their internet bandwidth to this greater network, which can be used by any Sidewalk device nearby — unless the user chooses to opt-out. 

Essentially, Amazon Sidewalk works by extending service and connecting devices that exist along the perimeter of Wi-Fi ranges. So, if your Ring security camera is operating too far from your home WiFi range, your neighbor’s WiFi may be able to keep it connected. Additionally, if your WiFi goes down, you could still receive motion alerts from your security camera or keep your smart lights on. Devices that require less bandwidth, like Tile trackers, will be permitted to use Sidewalk at any time, connecting with “Sidewalk Endpoints” it passes. 

The announcement immediately set off red flags for privacy experts and Amazon users wary of sharing their WiFi and potentially exposing their personal data. However, Amazon has released a Whitepaper outlining the ways in which this customer data will continue to be protected. 

Author Michael Franco notes that because the 900MHz band cannot actually deliver the speed of WiFi protocols like 5G, there is really no fear of someone hacking into your router and leveraging your connection for their personal browsing. The service is currently limited to sensors and small trackers, reducing the risk of a real data breach. The eCommerce company also notes that the data will be sent in triple-encrypted packets, making it unreadable to the company itself. But, at the end of the day, Amazon is still transmitting data, however strong its encryption may be. 

Additionally, the service will also include a “Community Finding” feature, this time an opt-in choice, that would allow neighbors to locate your bridge devices when they lose an item with a Tile tracker. While it would not identify the person who owns the device, it is still using home location data that may not feel comfortable to all users. 

The other criticism currently being discussed, beyond privacy concerns, was Amazon’s choice to implement the overall Sidewalk “mesh network” as an opt-out, rather than opt-in, service. With its launch so soon, many individuals felt there was little time and few resources available to make an informed decision about using the service. However, it’s worth noting that while Sidewalk will be officially introduced on June 8, users still have the option of opting in or out whenever they want. This means that if users are on the fence they may want to opt-out initially and take some time to gain a deeper understanding of the entirety of Sidewalk’s features.

To include another perspective, Slate’s Josephine Wolff notes that if users simply don't trust Amazon as a company to implement this kind of structure in a transparent way, they may not be the prime demographic to even own one of these devices in the first place. Echo and Ring devices notably collect large quantities of audio and video data, and this program only applies to users who already have these devices in their homes. Therefore, if these customers already trust Amazon with this kind of data, they shouldn’t really be concerned by this new concept. Additionally, while she agrees that they may have needed more time to make the decision, implementing the “mesh network” as an opt-out service would, in a way, defeat the purpose of it all. Ultimately, this kind of network can only be successful if a significant number of people are enrolled, deeming the opt-out option as necessary to its overall usefulness. 

Whether or not users choose to opt-out will depend on their comfort level with the service, their awareness of the feature, and the importance of these devices to their household. While there are certainly valid privacy concerns, the backlash may have more to do with customers sensing a lack of transparency in its quick rollout. If Amazon had given them more time, or information about the service, maybe people would feel less hesitant about the update. Also, because these devices are in their home and have access to this level of sensitive data, they may be more wary of sharing the new service with their neighbors. Alexa has become a mainstay in many people's homes, so it may actually feel a bit more intimate to share its connection than if the service was just bridging the smart light sensors.

 

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