Amazon is about to share your internet connection with neighbors

ECHO DOT: Amazon devices including the third-generation Echo Dot contain a technology called Sidewalk that is capable of sharing a portion of your home Internet connection with neighbors. Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post 

There's an eyebrow-raising technology buried inside millions of Amazon Echo smart speakers and Ring security cameras. They have the ability to make a new kind of wireless network called Sidewalk that shares a slice of your home internet connection with your neighbors' devices.

And on Tuesday, Amazon is switching Sidewalk on - for everyone.

I'm digging into my settings to turn it off. Sidewalk 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?

I recommend you opt out of Sidewalk, too, until we get much better answers to these questions.

Sidewalk will blanket urban and suburban America with a low-bandwidth wireless network that can stretch half a mile and reach places and things that were once too hard or too expensive to connect. It could have many positive uses, such as making it easier to set up smart-home devices in places your WiFi doesn't reach. (That can help your neighbors, and you.) But by participating, you also have no control over what sort of data you're helping to transmit. In communities where Amazon Ring devices already over-police many doors and driveways, Sidewalk could power more surveillance, more trackers - maybe even Amazon drones.

Amazon seems oblivious to many obvious consumer concerns with its increasingly invasive technology. So let me say it: Remotely activating our devices to build a closed internet of Amazon is not OK.

Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but I review all tech with the same critical eye.

Amazon declined my request to interview an executive in charge of Sidewalk but over email said it was about making our tech work better. "We live in an increasingly connected world where customers want their devices to stay connected. We built Sidewalk to improve customers' experiences with their devices and to benefit their communities," said Manolo Arana, general manager of Sidewalk.

Reasons we would want Sidewalk, he said, include continuing to receive motion alerts from Ring security cameras when they lose WiFi or extending the range of smart lights. Later this month, Amazon is also adding Bluetooth lost-item tracker Tile and smart lock maker Level to the Sidewalk network. And it is partnering with CareBand, a maker of wearable sensors for people with dementia, on a pilot test including indoor and outdoor tracking and a help button.

But Sidewalk is also a vast new wireless network entirely controlled by Amazon - and paid for by us.

Amazon is not the only big company working on getting more things connected to the internet by piggybacking on us. But it's doing it in a more aggressive way.

Modern iPhones collect and beam out tiny snippets of other people's data for Apple's Find My network, used to report the location of lost devices and AirTag trackers. The routers that Comcast puts in our homes automatically double as hotspots for other Xfinity customers, though they create a separate WiFi network for the public traffic.

With Sidewalk, Amazon is creating a more robust network. Your lowly Echo speaker or other compatible device is already connected to your home's private internet connection. When Amazon transforms it into a so-called Sidewalk Bridge, your device creates a new network of its own that's not WiFi. Instead, it uses common Bluetooth to connect devices nearby, and another type of signal (using the 900 MHz spectrum) to connect to devices up to half a mile away.

This new Sidewalk network can't carry as much data as WiFi, but it's still impressive: Sidewalk signals from all the Amazon devices in your neighborhood overlap and join together to create what's called a mesh network.

But here's the rub: Sidewalk authorizes your Echo to share a portion of your home's internet bandwidth. It's up to 500 megabytes per month - the rough equivalent of more than 150 cellphone photos. Amazon caps it at a rate of 80 Kbps, which the company says is a fraction of the bandwidth used to stream a typical high-definition video. Still, this traffic could count toward your internet service provider's data cap, if you've got one. The bill will be paid by you, not Amazon.

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