Your source for CE industry intelligence
Opt-Out Required

Amazon's Sidewalk Going Live -- With Privacy Concerns

Amazon Sidewalk goes live Tuesday, automatically enabling a feature on its hardware devices that will share a small slice of consumers’ Wi-Fi bandwidth with neighbors, unless they opt out. This raises privacy and competitive concerns, experts told us.

Whether the FCC or FTC will investigate is unclear. The FTC normally doesn’t disclose investigations since they’re not public, said a spokesperson. The FCC didn’t comment Thursday.

The FTC is the more likely to investigate, depending on whether the way Amazon runs the service raises competitiveness concerns, said Jon Callas, Electronic Frontier Foundation director-technology projects. “They’ve already opened it up and have one partner in Tile and said others can participate,” he said: “This could be a good thing that would increase competition.” Callas said Sidewalk uses a small amount of spectrum, so it likely won’t harm connections. But he said Amazon hasn’t really addressed stalking concerns.

Amazon is “enabling devices to connect to other networks without asking you,” said Carrie Kerskie of Kerskie Group. If someone has a limited data plan, Sidewalk could have a negative impact, she said. “Because we are unable to see how these devices are programmed, it is hard to tell exactly what is happening,” she said. “Why didn’t they tell people this was going to be a feature when Amazon originally sold the products?” she asked: “Was this their plan all along?” Kerskie predicted some customers won’t know of the service or that they have to opt out.

Amazon describes Sidewalk as “a shared network that helps devices like Amazon Echo, Ring Security Cams, outdoor lights, motion sensors, and Tile trackers work better at home and beyond the front door.” Once enabled, “Sidewalk can unlock unique benefits for your device, support other Sidewalk devices in your community, and even locate pets or lost items,” the company said. Sidewalk creates a “low-bandwidth network” sharing a “small portion of your internet bandwidth which is pooled together to provide these services to you and your neighbors,” Amazon said.

Amazon defended Sidewalk’s privacy protections. “Sidewalk protects customer privacy by limiting the amount and type of metadata that Amazon needs to receive from Sidewalk endpoints to manage the network,” it said. The company didn’t otherwise comment.

Free Press is part of the Athena coalition challenging Amazon's power on a wide range of issues, and we certainly have concerns about big companies' data abuses and Amazon's practices in particular,” said Sandra Fulton, director-government relations. “Ring, and other facial recognition and home monitoring services provided by Amazon, are especially problematic,” as is the opt-out requirement, she said. “Opt-outs are designed to maximize participation and keep people signed up for programs and practices they may not choose on their own.” Free Press generally supports shared spectrum use and community networks, “but not if they're imposed from above and rife with the potential for privacy violations and worse,” Fulton said.

Sidewalk likely won’t raise issues for regulators, said Public Knowledge Senior Vice President Harold Feld, though he sees policy concerns. “We're talking about a device brought into your home with a set of understandings about its actions and capabilities, that years later the company decides to modify without the consent of the user.” Opt-out protection isn’t “real protection, especially from a change like this, which users don't notice because they don't read the trades or their email updates,” he said.

Amazon isn’t making it easy to find out how other products can use Sidewalk, developer Tom Lee tweeted. “It's designed to give Amazon-approved devices ubiquitous free low-bandwidth connectivity,” he said: “But what are the terms? I can't find them without filling out a bunch of forms in which I'm supposed to explain the device I'm building. And even then it's just an application for preview access.”