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Surveillance in the Age of Amazon

Claire Merchlinsky / for NBC News


On June 8th, 2021, Amazon quietly started its Sidewalk program. Amazon Sidewalk is a shared network throughout neighborhoods supplying constant flows of information to the company. While customers are marginally benefited from its services (i.e. in the rare case of a lost dog), the network ultimately better serves Amazon. Amazon Sidewalk is a public WiFi network created by your Amazon devices, Ring cameras, motion sensors, and Tile trackers. Each device shares some portion of your WiFi bandwidth with your neighbors to create a mesh that pools your resources together. Specifically, all these devices have a 900 Mhz transponder/receiver installed, allowing them to send and receive signals within a half mile radius. 


Amazon claims that users benefit from Sidewalk in the case that your WiFi fails, then all your devices still work by using your neighbor’s network. However, none of your personal devices benefit from this public network, meaning that Amazon essentially becomes an Internet Service Provider, but only for devices that serve its purpose of data collection. Problematically, Amazon is forcing the cost of their network onto consumers, as they are the ones that pay ISPs – like Comcast – for internet access and additionally pay Amazon for the luxury of owning a device from one of their many brands. The megacorporation has also made the program opt-out in order to achieve critical mass as soon as possible. This means users are forced to participate until they are aware of an option to leave the network. 


Plans are already in the works to open the mesh network to third party developers. However, while Amazon reiterates that they will only store some data in AWS, third party developers are only under the scrutiny of pledging that they do not store sensitive information. Many cases of such agreements being violated exist, and it is difficult to see how this one is enforceable. 


Amazon’s publicity regarding Sidewalk has been sparse at best. Most articles read like advertisements and little news leading up to the launch was available. In Amazon’s own whitepaper regarding Sidewalk, they consistently bring up the example of finding lost dogs. However, people can potentially also be tracked across the entire network from the bluetooth signatures in their phones as well if they carry Tile devices with them. While Amazon stresses that it has three layers of encryption for data sent over the network, once a third party application has access to the data, they will be able to unencrypt it and perform whatever actions they like, such as storage or maybe even selling it as in the case of most large technology companies. While Amazon states they will not give into broad government demands, the company has already been implicated twice by either contracting for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as well as giving camera feeds from Ring devices to law enforcement without asking consumers. These transgressions of public trust do not paint a rosy picture for what is to come with the Sidewalk program. To opt out of sidewalk, open the Alexa app, go to more and select settings, and then go to the account settings, and finally to the Amazon Sidewalk prompt. From there you will see a switch to turn off access to the Sidewalk network. 


Student Opinions of Amazon Sidewalk

Student #1:

“I would never own one of these devices. I’m pretty scared about the prospect of Amazon being able to track me in my own neighborhood, even if I don’t own a sidewalk device. Also, what if they sell that data to other companies?” 


Student #2:

“I really appreciate how personalized and accurate amazon recommendations have become, but I’m also nervous about how much information they’re getting from me without me even knowing. For example, I have an Alexa at home, and I know it’s probably always listening to me – how else does it know to respond when I say “hey Alexa”? I wouldn’t be surprised if the conversations I have about what I want to buy when Alexa is in the background feeds into the Amazon database and directly impacts the products I see on the home page.”


Amazon’s sidewalk program is the first step to fulfilling the company’s vision of creating not only smart homes but smart neighborhoods. The devices included in the program, such as echo speakers, ring products, and tile trackers, multiply access to networks within larger ranges. These networks keep devices connected, even when they are out of reach of Wi-Fi bandwidth.


How does Amazon use this acquired access to the data contained within your devices and your neighbor’s devices? First, this data is shared with Amazon’s private servers. This is not a new concern, but rather a practice that we have become very accustomed to in our modern society. But the expanded access to nearby networks radically multiples the kinds of data that Amazon can acquire. Jeff Pollard illustrated his concerns through the example of a dog with a tile tracking device attached to its collar: 


“It’s great to get an alert [that] your dog left the yard, but those devices could also send data to Amazon like the frequency, duration, destination, and path of your dog walks. That seems innocuous enough, but what could that data mean for you when combined with other data? It’s the unintended — and unexpected — consequences of technology and the data it collects that often come back to bite us (pardon the pun).”


To address users’ concerns, Amazon released a detailed white paper to explain the technological dynamics of these new products. They compared their security practices to the postal service: “ Like the post office, the SNS reads the routing information on the outside of the envelope to direct the packet to the correct endpoint and application server.” In simpler terms, the key part of this analogy is the claim that Amazon doesn’t get to read your data, just like the post doesn’t get to read your mail. 


While these practices and assurances create a degree of comfort, it will be important to understand the implications of the expanded networks on the types of consumer data that can be accessed. Ultimately, owning any of the sidewalk devices requires placing enormous trust in Amazon that it will not use the acquired data nefariously, and that these databases are not vulnerable to security patches or other risks. 


Massachusetts Attorney General William Tong warned people about owning a Sidewalk device: 


“Do you trust your neighbor to patch their devices fast enough to avoid risk? You shouldn’t. They are a part of your network when using Sidewalk. Do you trust third-party developers creating plugins to be secure enough? Again, you shouldn’t.”


The problem with privacy is that it often isn’t seen as one. When someone learns about some kind of breach in their privacy, it’s a mixed bag of reactions–while some truly are concerned, there is a significant population of people who aren’t, at least not enough to do something about it. Two common reactions to concerns about privacy are:
“I have nothing to hide. Why should I care?”
The honest truth is that you likely do have something to hide. But if you have a passcode on your phone or you prefer to keep your texts to yourself–that is valuing your privacy. It doesn’t have to be particularly influential or potentially scandalous information. As one blogger points out, privacy should not be confused with secrecy. It’s only natural to want to keep some things to yourself, and the problem with surveillance technology is that any of that is up in the air. The misunderstanding with privacy likely derives from not having the firsthand experience of knowing what it means to have your privacy invaded. So perhaps the safest course of action is preventative behavior. Optimism bias only bares its teeth when it’s too late.
“I do care, but not enough to stop using my Alexa.”
This stance is common enough that it has its own name–the privacy paradox. This phenomenon occurs when people claim to care about privacy yet act in ways that are at odds with these values–for example, continuing to use the applications that are guilty of the actions they so fear. Senior, in an article for the New York Times, argues that this reaction comes from an inability “to fully apprehend our vulnerabilities as digital creatures.” Our lives have become so intertwined with shared data that we cannot imagine a world without it. So in some cases when we react aversively to breaches of privacy, we don’t really fully know what that entails to be emotional enough to do something about it.
Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, mentions in the same article that, rather than being reckless with our online presence, “we have no other choice” (Senior). The internet gives us what the real world often can’t, from intentions as different as social purpose to shopping efficiency, and that makes it difficult for us to pull away. So the privacy paradox gives a sneak peek into what is perhaps the true nature of our tug-of-war with technology and social media–our lack of concern could perhaps stem from the awareness, acceptance, and belief that the ways in which technology has changed our lives outweighs its possible dangers.
Why should we care? In the end it really is just a personal choice. But perhaps delineating one’s priorities is the first step to confronting the issue of privacy. Do we really have nothing to hide, or is this a coping mechanism more than anything else? Perhaps it’s an understanding, subconsciously, that our lives are irreversibly imbued with the technology that pervades our personal lives, to which we have simultaneously become so dependent on.
Crist, Ry. “Amazon Sidewalk will create entire smart neighborhoods. Here’s what you should know.” Cnet. 8 June 2021,
Esteves, Fabio. “I have nothing to hide. Why should I care about my privacy?” Medium. 27 Oct 2016,
Senior, Jennifer. “You’re Not Alone When You’re On Google.” The New York Times. 17 May 2019,