Pay notice if you use Amazon’s Echo gadgets at home or a Tile tracker to find your keys: a contentious and fascinating upgrade is coming. On Tuesday, June 8, specific Echo devices will begin to interact with the Amazon Sidewalk network, and Tile trackers will follow suit on June 14. Here’s all you need to know about Sidewalk—and why the privacy concerns it raises may surprise you.
Although the name “sidewalk” is perplexing, it alludes to an extensive Amazon-run network similar to Apple’s “Find My” system. You may read headlines about Amazon “sharing your internet with your neighbors,” which may conjure up images of your neighbor’s television suddenly connecting to your house Wi-Fi and streaming for hours, much like your phone or computer. That’s not the case.
Consider this: If you have a new Echo Dot at the extreme edge of your home internet connection—that patchy, annoying range where you lose service all the time—it may compensate by attempting to connect to a neighbor’s Amazon gadget. If a device is within range, it can transfer data through your neighbor’s internet connection to keep your connection stable.
“What it is, is a method to connect several things,” says Jon Callas, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s director of technology products. “It appears to be a means of accomplishing two goals: One is to assist in getting a device up and operating in an area where Wi-Fi connectivity may be limited.” He imagines a weather station at the edge of your network routing data over your neighbor’s network, for example. He goes on to say that the second use case is for things like locating a Tile tracker that may be attached to one of your dogs or keys that you’ve misplaced.
The concept of your data traveling over a network you don’t control may seem unsettling, but Callas is unconcerned because the transmission is encrypted. “In that regard, the privacy parts of it are good,” he adds. Consider how Sidewalk is used by an internet-connected gadget in your house to route some traffic through a neighbor. “If your neighbor is a network genius, they will watch an Amazon Sidewalk packet pass their network,” Callas explains. Unless they heard you screaming at Alexa over the wall, they wouldn’t know that packet was linked to you turning on a light.
Callas, on the other hand, has at least two misgivings about the system. The first is that you should opt-out of it rather than into it. And it’s self-evident that deliberately deciding to do something feels more consensual than the opposite. “An opt-out system differs from an opt-in system in that folks who aren’t paying attention will do whatever the thing is,” he explains. “Opt-in is significantly more privacy-friendly.” Because they made it opt-out, Amazon will most likely gain from having a broader network at its disposal. Many users will be unaware of Sidewalk, will be unaware that they can opt-out, and will be unwilling to go through the process of removing it. (If you don’t want to participate in Amazon Sidewalk, open the Alexa app on your phone and go to More, then Settings, then Account Settings, and then Amazon Sidewalk.) You may turn it off there.)
The more significant concern, according to Callas, is that those Tile trackers will be joining Sidewalk on June 14. “Now, qualified Echo Devices in the community linked to Sidewalk can help you discover your Tiled items,” according to a Tile blog post. Using Sidewalk’s Bluetooth frequency, these Echo devices can also safely scan for and update the position of Tiles. This new partnership will exponentially extend the already massive Tile Network, which means misplaced Tiles outside the house will receive more frequent location updates, making it easier for consumers to find them.”
That’s convenient for those who leave their keys on the side of the road, but Callas believes there’s space for misuse. Tile trackers previously had some out-of-home capabilities, but Sidewalk adds that making tiles more straightforward to track down over longer distances might have a dangerous side effect. “What happens if one of them falls into my bag?” Callas is a marvel. “That is the true privacy concern we notice, and it is something they don’t handle at all,” says the author. (Here’s how Apple’s AirTags manage the problem, as well as further information on the possible dangers of stalking.)
So, while Callas thinks the data and encryption protocol is generally sound, she is more concerned about how individuals can abuse trackers. “The unanswered, terrifying issue is: What happens if someone wants to use this as a stalking system?” says the author.
“We take this concern seriously and aim to remedy it for both iOS and Android users,” writes Mira Dix, a Tile representative, via email. We’re working on a feature that will allow users on both platforms to identify an unwelcome tracker, and we’re collaborating with industry experts to make sure we do it right.” “The network isn’t meant to capture or broadcast exact location details,” says Amazon spokesperson Jonathan Richardson in an email. Finally, in the same section of the Alexa app where you turn on or off Sidewalk, there’s an option to agree to enable “community finding” or not, which you can toggle on or off as needed.