We always suspected that the Amazon Echo resting quietly in your family room was more insidious than it seemed. Now we have confirmation.
We know that the Echo can hear us. We also know that it records private conversations in your home if the device thinks it hears the word “Alexa,’ and that Amazon can also listen to those conversations. A former Amazon executive admitted as much last year.
The Echo studies us and knows more than you might think. Tech writer Grant Clauser at the New York Times wrote, “Because it can recognize individual voices, it also knows when you’re home—and maybe even what room you’re in (because users often name a device by the room it’s in, such as “Kitchen Echo” or “Bedroom Echo”). Presumably, the information it collects about you is used to market more products and services to you.”
Bloomberg reports that Amazon employs thousands of people to transcribe the instructions and conversations that the Echo records. Google apparently does the same thing. You can change your privacy settings on the Echo to keep humans from listening to your Echo recordings.
And of course the information about your preferences and interests recorded by the Echo are combined with the other data Amazon knows about you from deliveries, online activity and television selections.
On June 8, Amazon just switched on a new feature for newer Echos and Ring security cameras, sharing a part of your home’s internet connection with your neighbors. That’s right, they just opened a door to your personal home wifi so that others can use it. And it is complicated to extricate your own system from the “Sidewalk” bandwidth sharing. More on that later.
As observed by the Washington Post, “ You have no control over what sort of data flows over Amazon’s new Sidewalk wireless network, which has been lying dormant in Echo smart speakers and Ring cameras ... until now.” The article asks the obvious questions: “Sidewalk, which is built into Amazon devices dating back to 2018, raises more red flags than a marching band parade: Is it secure enough to be activated in so many homes? Are we helping Amazon build a vast network that can be used for more surveillance? And why didn’t Amazon ask us to opt-in before activating a capability lying dormant in our devices?”
Amazon Sidewalk will provide a low-width wireless network throughout urban and suburban areas in the U.S. It could help you by tapping into this network for devices outside the range of your own home wifi. But we don’t control the activities carried out over Sidewalk, we don’t know what Amazon will be doing with its own nationwide system created out of OUR paid connectivity, and we don’t know what kind of IoT or surveillance devices will be attached. We pay for the network; Amazon decides how to use it.
Although your wifi underlies the new Amazon network, Sidewalk operates mostly through Bluetooth connections and a 900 MHz longer-distance signal. This mesh network drawn from all of our paid connection is described as something between the tight geo-limits of wifi and the expensive range of cellular service.
Will Sidewalk be used by Amazon to snoop on and around your home (and feed that information to the police)? They say not. Could Sidewalk be hacked by Russians with an agenda? Amazon says its triple-encrypted system will keep them out. Amazon has published a whitepaper detailing the steps it took to make these connections safe. They may be right, but why not just ask my permission to switch my Echo or Ring device into a fully outside-networked IoT device? Or at least give me a coupon for cheaper connectivity since you are using mine for your benefit.
While you were likely automatically entered into the Sidewalk service, you can exit it. This New York Times wirecutter post explains how to disable Sidewalk on your device.
Internet service providers, as you might expect, hate this idea. It is possible that your ISP may penalize you in the future for allowing Amazon Sidewalk to operate on your home system. Amazon has intentionally put all its customers in violation of their internet access agreements. An ISP industry source quoted in the New York Times called Amazon’s Sidewalk play “straight up theft.” How will this play out? Who will sue whom?
Will Sidewalk be beneficial or detrimental to you? Most likely beneficial. We will all have another network around cities and suburbs that can help us stay connected with lots of different devices. It may evolve new capabilities as we learn how to use it. It may be a step to an interoperable mesh network for all your devices in the future.
But Amazon just built its own network, on our dime, in and around our home, to use for whatever purpose it deems appropriate. They opted all of us into their little club automatically without prior direct notice. We know that Amazon already shares data with local police, and that its networks – like any networks – can be hacked. This is just one more system of technology, operated by someone outside of our control with no obligation to the general good, that is taking information about us. How bad could that be?