Starting June 8, a new program by Amazon will automatically enroll its vast network of smart home devices — from Ring cameras to Echo speakers — into a mesh network that shares a customer’s Wi-Fi signal with neighbors. The program, called Amazon Sidewalk, is intended to create a reliable connection for devices like Ring security cameras, even if they’re far from a person’s home Wi-Fi router or their connection goes down.
Customers who own Amazon hardware and don’t want to participate in Sidewalk can opt out, but it will be enabled by default on existing devices. New hardware will include an option to opt out during the setup process. Amazon says that Sidewalk has multiple layers of privacy to protect personal information.
Amazon has dealt with plenty of privacy issues surrounding its Ring security cameras already, particularly regarding its partnerships with police to share recordings. The company has also previously been criticized for the poor security of its devices that at times allowed hackers to look into people’s camera feeds and watch them discreetly. It has since added optional end-to-end encryption to combat this.
Go on, convince us — On a new webpage, Amazon describes Sidewalk as “a shared network that helps devices like Amazon Echo devices, Ring Security Cams, outdoor lights, motion sensors, and Tile trackers work better at home and beyond the front door.” It works by creating a low-bandwidth network that takes a small portion of eligible neighbors’ internet and pools it into one big network. “When more neighbors participate, the network becomes even stronger.”
In a FAQ section, Amazon says that Sidewalk could help devices like Echo speakers reconnect quickly in the event they lose their Wi-Fi connection — say, if you accidentally unplug your router. Certain Ring security devices will continue sending motion alerts even if they lose their home connection, and Sidewalk can extend the working range of these devices so they stay connected over long distances. Presumably, this is because a Ring camera far from its home router could piggyback off a neighbor’s network if that connection is stronger.
Mesh networks aren’t new — This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this type of public mesh network. Comcast automatically co-opts most of its Xfinity home broadband customers into a hotspot network. By default, every customer’s Wi-Fi router broadcasts an additional signal that allows other Comcast customers to sign in and use the Wi-Fi connection. The service is supposed to be a bonus for Xfinity customers, enabling them to access reliable internet from anywhere. Comcast says it doesn’t impact a customer’s internet speeds or endanger their privacy.
Alphabet, the parent company of Google, previously experimented with similar ideas. Its company Sidewalk Labs envisioned creating an entire “smart city district” in Toronto, Ontario that would utilize technology to improve city life. It eventually pulled the plug on the project due to issues with the changing economic situation there, though.