Photo illustration by John Lyman; Wikimedia



Amazon Sidewalk: Big Brother Bezos

In a recent interview with “Panorama,” a British current affairs program produced by the BBC, Microsoft President Brad Smith warned viewers that artificial intelligence will likely result in a world more suited to tyrants and dictators. In fact, according to Smith, by 2024, we may very well live in 1984.

Now, you are probably imagining killer robots decapitating humans in the street. But the cancellation of humans comes via the cancellation of autonomy, and more specifically, the complete and utter violation of privacy. Machine learning, a subset of AI, is playing a leading role in the invasive process. As Daniel Fagella, one of the leading experts in the field of AI, writes, machine learning “involves getting computers to learn and act like humans do.” For this to happen, data is needed. Your data. Lots of it, too.

Advances in AI, largely through the accumulation of data, have fueled the Internet of Things, more commonly referred to as IoT. In simple terms, this allows anything embedded with sensors and software products to connect with each other and exchange data. It’s like Bluetooth on steroids. Today, we are no longer just connecting phones to speakers but we are connecting watches to fridges, laptops to doorbells, and our front doors and security systems to TVs. No longer are the walls the only things with ears. Doors, windows, letterboxes, and street lamps have all been imbued with auditory superpowers.

Not surprisingly, IoT raises a whole host of concerns regarding user privacy. Speaking of concerns and privacy, or lack thereof, on June 8th, Amazon, a company with a history of violating users’ privacy, debuted its latest feature, Sidewalk. This “mesh” network connects Amazon devices with neighboring devices. Not neighboring as in within the confines of your home. Neighboring as in within the confines of your neighborhood. This, we’re told, will help devices work better beyond your home. For example, if your Wi-Fi is out, fear not, you can just use your neighbor’s connection. Think Marxism meets Asimov.

Considering some 80 million Americans own an Amazon smart device, and almost every single owner of a smart device was automatically added to the Sidewalk system, there is little room for laughter.

After all, without Big Data, Amazon would not be the powerhouse it is today. Without Big Data, Jeff Bezos would not be earning $152,000 every minute– that’s $2,500 every second. We are fast approaching the final frontier in data, and Bezos is leading the charge. Privacy, if it ever truly existed, is quickly eroding. Your home, as Amazon’s latest addition to its ever-extending family so clearly demonstrates, is no longer really your home. As Edward Snowden has shown the world, one needn’t live in Pyongyang to feel a little uneasy.

Sidewalk is being sold as a helpful system, but in reality, it’s a sophisticated net for the collection of data. This data is then used to target users with an array of Amazon endorsed products, from TV shows to toilet rolls. The latter might come in handy, seeing as the proverbial appears to have really hit the fan.

If you happen to be an owner of an Amazon smart device, ask yourself this: was my permission sought? I am guessing that the answer is no. This, in many ways, is more concerning than Amazon’s new feature. The nonchalance, disrespect, disregard, and borderline contempt for the people who helped make Amazon the colossus it is today is as alarming as it is objectionable. But, as they say, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.

However, Amazon has gotten past the point of needing permission. And it has little interest in forgiveness. In many ways, like Google, Facebook, and other Big Tech giants, it acts with a great degree of impunity. In a recent interview with Ars Technica, the former Chief Technologist of the Federal Trade Commission, Ashkan Soltani, said that Amazon was no longer just interested in “capturing everyone’s shopping habits.” No, the company also wants to track your “Internet activity.” Considering Amazon Web Services (AWS) is now the largest provider of computing services in the world, that box is already ticked. Unbound and unrepentant, Amazon, quite literally, controls America.

Even before the launch of Sidewalk, the company was accused of invading users’ privacy in the most egregious of ways.

In 2019, the NY Times published an article titled “Amazon’s Alexa Never Stops Listening to You. Should You Worry?” The answer, as you already know, is yes. The first paragraph reads, “When you invite a digital voice assistant like Amazon Alexa into your home, you’re inviting a device that records and stores things you say, which will be analyzed by a computer, and maybe by a human. You won’t always know what happens with those recordings.” From there, things only get more cynical and more disturbing.

Then, there’s Ring, a home security and smart home company owned by Amazon. Ring specializes in the production of motion-detecting cameras and security cameras. It also specializes in making products that are “not compatible with a free society.” That is the opinion of Max Eliaser, a software engineer who worked for Amazon. As you can probably tell, he no longer does. Last year, in a post on Medium, Eliaser claimed that Ring gathers and archives video in an ethically dubious way. “The privacy issues,” according to the engineer, “are not fixable with regulation.” He called for the company to be shut down immediately. It wasn’t.

Around the same time as Eliaser’s post, a massive data breach involving thousands of Ring customers occurred. Hackers were able to access thousands of names, emails, and passwords. They were also able to take full control of the devices.

If that’s not enough, the FBI previously described the ways in which Amazon’s smart TVs can be used to spy on people in their homes. The very connection settings that the FBI asked people to deactivate are the very settings that Sidewalk has recently activated on users’ devices.

Now, with Amazon’s new IoT, the invasion of privacy has reached unimaginable new heights. As Business Insider noted last year, “The sheer amount of data that IoT devices can generate is staggering.” With a few thousand households generating “150 million discrete data points every day.” With so many data points being created, IoT systems are a hacker’s paradise. And, as the recent hackings of Colonial Pipeline and JBS demonstrate, hackers love to hack.

Thankfully, it’s not too late to opt-out of Amazon’s Sidewalk system. Also, it’s relatively straightforward. On your Amazon device, click on settings, then hit account settings, then click on Amazon Sidewalk. You should see an option labeled “off.” And yes, for your own sanity and safety, please turn it off.