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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Amazon ‘Sidewalk’ turned your Echo and Ring into Wi-Fi bridges; cybersecurity experts are wary

How would you feel if Amazon suddenly started using your Echo or Ring doorbell as a free Wi-Fi source for strangers and you didn’t know about it?

Well, regardless of how it makes you feel, that’s exactly what happened on June 8 for millions of Amazon product owners when the company activated Sidewalk, a new mesh network.

Thanks to Sidewalk, more Amazon devices can now stay online when they’re out of Wi-Fi range. That’s because Echoes and Rings can now act as bridges between a Wi-Fi source and the device.

But despite the benefits, there are a host of reasons cybersecurity experts have concerns about the new technology.

To name a few: Hardly anyone knowingly consented to having Amazon activate the Sidewalk technology in their Echoes and Rings, the technology hasn’t been independently audited to see if it’s secure and it allows neighbors and strangers to use your Wi-Fi without even needing your specific permission or password.

Amazon says the technology will make life more convenient and reduce internet dead zones.

For instance, imagine a homeowner has Wi-Fi and it works just fine throughout her house. She can stream music on her Echo, watch Netflix on her laptop.

This woman’s house is large, though, and her Wi-Fi is hit-and-miss for the Ring doorbell she has installed. (Ring doorbells are internet-connected doorbells and act as security cameras, allowing property owners to see from anywhere who’s on their doorsteps.)

That scenario, wherein an internet-dependent device is too far away to reach Wi-Fi, is when Sidewalk has value. The Wi-Fi-connected Echo in the woman’s house can relay a weak signal to the Ring, allowing the security doorbell to continue transmitting information to the internet.

Technophiles might love how Sidewalk allows them to connect to their Amazon devices, but cybersecurity experts worry about the potential of the technology and how Amazon automatically enrolled people in it.

“I think it raises serious concerns about whether or not consumers have choices in how much they share and connect,” said Michael Haney, an associate professor of computer science and cybersecurity at the University of Idaho, Idaho Falls. “They didn’t give anybody that choice.”

Possible pitfalls

Mark Neufville, a cybersecurity instructor at Spokane Falls Community College, said Sidewalk’s triple-encryption technology should be secure.

“With anything, there’s a security risk,” Neufville said. “But I don’t see this as a big risk. … I don’t think it’s as big of an issue as a lot of people are going to make it out to be.”

But Neufville said Amazon shouldn’t be turning on all these features automatically.

“They should have had people opt into it if they wanted to, instead of saying this thing is going to automatically connect,” he said.

Few people knowingly consented to having the technology turned on last Tuesday. They consented when they clicked “OK” on some fine print Amazon put in front of them.

“Nobody reads those things,” Haney said. “A few people read those things as a hobby or a challenge.”

Some people might not be comfortable with strangers mooching off their Wi-Fi either, even it’s just a small amount.

Sidewalk is set up so that it uses a maximum of 500 MB of Wi-Fi per month. The signals it transmits can travel half a mile, but they’re low-bandwidth and weak. People won’t be able to surf the web using Sidewalk.

The technology is still useful for internet-connected devices that don’t guzzle data, though.

Haney said one of his biggest fears about Sidewalk is that the technology hasn’t been audited by an independent agency. He said companies such as Amazon should be more heavily regulated. People shouldn’t have to take the company at its word that Sidewalk is secure and can’t be hacked.

While Sidewalk is only good for linking a few internet-connected devices with a weak signal today, Amazon has been conspicuously tight-lipped about what it has planned for the future. Sidewalk could have a lot more uses in a few years.

Haney said it will become increasingly difficult to live off the grid as technology such as Sidewalk makes internet connections feasible in more places.

This type of technology is inevitable, he said.

“This is not the end,” Haney said. “This is not the last ethical question we’ll have about our technology.”