As Amazon creates neighborhood network of its smart devices, critics worry about security

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

Starting Tuesday, certain eligible Amazon Echo and Ring doorbell security devices in your neighborhood will be able to connect to each other and the internet systems they use. The project is called Amazon Sidewalk. The company says it will help its products work more efficiently. 

Amazon never asked users for their permission to open their home internet to outsiders, so it’s letting users opt-out, but they’ll have to do it before June 8. 

The idea behind linking Amazon devices is to help extend the wi-fi connectivity in devices, says INC tech columnist Jason Aten

“We all know that wi-fi doesn't go through walls very well. If you put your wi-fi router behind things, the signal gets worse the farther you get away,” he tells KCRW. “So if you have a Ring doorbell, or if you have something in the far corners of your house that doesn't get a very good wi-fi signal, but is close to another one of these Sidewalk-enabled devices, it'll just connect to that.” 

He says the concept depends on everyone else using the platform. 

“There is an advantage there because they're trying to create this ecosystem. But ultimately, the benefit to [Amazon] is the more things you use within their ecosystem, the more likely you are to stay within that ecosystem,” Aten explains. 

He points out that the new software only works on Amazon products that have been made within the last two years. 

Despite the potential benefits of Amazon Sidewalk and reassurances that the network is encrypted, Aten says nightmare scenarios exist.

“It does get a little bit weird when you think about if you have cameras in your home that are monitoring your home … and all of a sudden that data is being transmitted over other networks.”

There is also the potential for other security issues. He says Ring has a history of data leaks, which includes sharing footage with law enforcement. 

Why didn’t Amazon seek users’ permission in advance? “Look what happened with Facebook. … Amazon knows that if they put a pop-up on your phone and says, ‘Do you want to turn on Sidewalk?’ Everyone would be like, no.”

He also uses the analogy of someone trespassing into a yard and trimming the hedges there. “I'm really upset with you because you didn't ask and you're thinking, ‘But I made them look beautiful, this is a benefit to you.’ And I'm thinking, ‘We can't get past the point where you didn't ask. None of the benefits matter. You can't come into my yard and do this thing without asking.’”

He continues, “That's kind of what Amazon did, except for they didn't come in your yard. They came in your house.”

*Correction: June 9, 2021: A previous version of the story said, "Starting Tuesday, your Amazon devices, along with everyone else’s in your neighborhood, will be able to connect to each other and the internet systems they use.” A correction was made to reflect that only eligible devices will link to each other.