Amazon is expanding its presence in our communities, and it wants our help.
The company has created a way to leverage its customers’ broadband and Wi-Fi connections to enable it to expand a private network outside of our homes into communities, creating infrastructure to peddle even more devices and services to us in the future. Over time, these steps from Amazon, with the cooperation of its customers, have the potential to dramatically change the way we behave in our neighborhoods.
Called “Sidewalk,” this network technology was announced in September 2019, though it’s still not fully deployed and some of the devices that leverage it have yet to ship. Sidewalk intends to provide a way for people to network many Amazon devices outside of their residences, taking advantage of the goodwill of people and their neighbors to provide shared mesh connectivity outside of the home. The company refers to this as a “crowdsourced community benefit,” but the larger benefit may be to Amazon itself.
Sidewalk is compatible with numerous existing and upcoming Amazon products, such as Echo speakers and Ring security cameras. Unfortunately, it’s an “opt-out” service; disabling it requires changing a setting in the Alexa app. By being opt-in, Sidewalk automatically assumes that we will share a fragment of our network bandwidth with our neighbors in order to extend and increase the network range of Echo and Ring devices up to a half mile outside the home. (The company says that the data used by Sidewalk is capped at 500 MB a month, the equivalent of 10 minutes of HD video.))
Advertised as “connected convenience,” Amazon Sidewalk aims to improve network connectivity for Echo devices and Ring Security Cams in the home, and to help outdoor lights and motion sensors work more effectively. Amazon mentions “unique benefits” such as supporting other “Sidewalk devices” in the community, and suggests that future developments of “new low-bandwidth devices that can run on or benefit from Sidewalk” such as pet trackers and other offerings that may involve location tracking capabilities. Amazon also mentions that Sidewalk could help with “appliance and tool diagnostics,” which could provide a foothold for the company to learn about people’s appliances—and how we use them.
Sidewalk requires Amazon devices that contain Sidewalk Bridges, which include most Echo devices and some Ring outdoor floodlights and surveillance cameras. The technology uses Bluetooth connections, the 900 MHz spectrum, and other frequencies to create a private mesh network between a household’s Sidewalk Bridges and its neighbors, with the idea that if a network goes down, or needs more bandwidth, it can use shared low-bandwidth from other households with Amazon devices that contain Sidewalk Bridges. That way, the Sidewalk network spans beyond any one home’s Wi-Fi.
A meaningful name
Amazon has given its new technology a name that evokes communal connectivity: It isn’t Amazon “Backyard” or Amazon “Outside,” but Amazon Sidewalk. The sidewalk is physical pavement that is owned collectively by the Commons and offers us, through shared investment, a way to move through neighborhoods and access each other’s homes as well as retail environments. Sidewalks imply walking and mobility—in a way, they’re akin to networks. They’re how we get around.
Sidewalks provide muncipal connectivity, too. If Amazon, for-profit company, is naming its low-bandwidth network technology after them, it certainly seems that the service is intended to extend beyond driveways and backyards—especially with that half-mile range. The name “Sidewalk” may imply that we move along from network to network, allowing for a type of roaming that Amazon can wholly control—as long as there is sufficient bandwidth in the form of community crowdsourced bandwidth.
Amazon needs people in neighborhoods to agree to crowdsource their bandwidth (for free to the company) to enable these products. This puts the development of Amazon products that reach beyond the home and into the Commons onto its existing customers—even as those customers pay for Ring doorbell hardware and “Ring Protect Plans,” that cost anywhere from $3-$10 per month.
The idea of building a network atop infrastructure provided by a company’s customers isn’t new. Comcast has long rented people modem/routers and then using them to power hotspots for other Comcast customers. Then there’s Apple’s Find My network, which turns everyone’s Apple gadgets into a mesh network to help find lost devices. But Amazon’s plan is far more ambitious and fraught with the potential for unintended consequences.
Amazon envisions us stuffing our homes with Amazon products that are tied together with Alexa—and now Sidewalk. They include an upcoming indoor drone as well as Ring alarms and cameras for use in cars. A security service called Alexa Guard Plus uses algorithmic triage to response to different signs of trouble. For example, if Alexa is set into Away Mode, but “hears” sounds that are abnormal, such as shattering glass, footsteps, coughing, or water running, it will send the customer an alert. If Alexa detects signs of an intruder, it will react by playing a siren through an Echo device. If the homeowner has the outdoor motion detection option for cameras and lights, Guard Plus will work with smart cameras to turn on lights and play sounds of dogs barking to deter break-ins.
From the outside, it’s hard to speculate on Amazon’s end goals with all of this and how its product announcements could work together. All this isn’t the entirety of the company’s technology expansion into Commons: It’s also announced intent to capture video footage in and around its delivery vans by installing AI-enabled surveillance cameras that will record its drivers and the public streets in front of and behind vans. Depending upon range and scope, that may in advertently (or purposefully) include sidewalks, driveways, and front porches. Described aa a way to keep package delivery safe, the data these cameras collect will be owned by Amazon.
Even Amazon may not be able to anticipate the upshot of the various surveillance combinations that customers will create with its products.
In a worst-case scenario, the experience the company is building could devolve into Amazon devices shrieking, barking, flashing lights and generally overreacting whenever an algorithm thinks it’s detected something amiss inside or outside of our homes. With so many new algorithms and services being deployed simultanetously in communities, the range of errors, and the potential for these errors to be magnified in aggregate amongst many instances of them, is worrisome. Even Amazon may not be able to anticipate the upshot of the various permutations and surveillance combinations that customers will create with its product lineup, potentially compromising the very security the company is attempting to provide.
The kicker is that as Amazon subsumes the community, customers are paying for the whole thing: gadgets such as Ring cameras, Guard Plus service, and even Amazon Sidewalk network bandwidth if using the service causes them to blow past an ISP data cap. But most of all, we could pay by outsourcing our sense of social trust onto Amazon to manage.
S. A. Applin, PhD, is an anthropologist whose research explores the domains of human agency, algorithms, AI, and automation in the context of social systems and sociability. You can find more at@anthropunk and PoSR.org.