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Insist on ‘opt-in’ policies when new products threaten our privacy

We’ve already seen internet companies operate in ways that aren’t immediately apparent to users only to cause problems later.

David Limp, senior vice president of Devices and Services at Amazon, displays an Echo, left, and an Echo Plus during an event announcing several new Amazon products by the company in 2017 in Seattle. Amazon is linking newer Echo devices into a mesh network called Sidewalk.
David Limp, senior vice president of Devices and Services at Amazon, displays an Echo, left, and an Echo Plus during an event announcing several new Amazon products by the company in 2017 in Seattle. Amazon is linking newer Echo devices into a mesh network called Sidewalk.
AP file photo

We really have to take a stronger stand for personal privacy, which is under assault on a new front.

Once again, a company is sucking customers into a new privacy-threatening electronic service without requiring that they explicitly “opt in,” meaning that they give their clear and up-front permission to be enrolled. Instead, the company is offering only “opt out,” which means customers are automatically enrolled and must take action on their own — must take the initiative — to turn the service off.

And there’s an excellent chance the customer won’t even know the company has signed them up.

This time, the company is Amazon, which last week activated a low-bandwidth “mesh network” called Sidewalk. Sidewalk taps into your internet-connected devices, such as Echo smart speakers, camera-equipped Ring doorbells, Level smart locks, Ring Floodlight Cams, Spotlight Cams and Tile Bluetooth trackers (for finding stuff you’ve misplaced around the house, like your keys).

Sidewalk ties together signals from all these devices to create a whole new network of your home and cellular data that can cover large geographic areas. Apple’s AirTag and FindMy apps operate on a similar mesh network.

Sidewalk’s “smart neighborhoods” will provide neighborly and personal benefits, to be sure.

If your neighbors, for example, have a doorbell from Amazon-owned Ring doorbell and lose their internet service, their Ring doorbell can tap into yours. You might never know Ring doorbell is tapping into your internet service, but it can and will.

Sidewalk can help you find lost pets or people with dementia who have wandered away if they are carrying tags or bands that communicate with Sidewalk. Sidewalk can also help make sure that your wireless-connected outdoor cameras stay hooked up to an internet signal.

But there are obvious risks.

Someone could track someone else by placing a tag in, say, a student’s backpack. You’ll never be quite sure, in detail, what data from your home devices is being transmitted and possibly collected. And there is the ever-present threat of hackers penetrating the service. Will a whole new network place us under constant surveillance in new ways?

Amazon says it has built in strong security measures. But all security measures appear airtight until someone with bad intentions penetrates them. And even if companies don’t let snoops get their hands on your data now, the companies are free to change the rules later.

Companies also tend to find new ways to use your data once they have it. Sidewalk could help you find your Tile-tagged dog, but it also theoretically could gather data about where and when you walk your dog.

Who needs strangers tracking more of our daily lives?

That’s why we should insist that whenever a new service of this sort comes along, the company providing the service must make the case for our participation — they must sell us on it — and get our pro-active permission to sign us up. If Sidewalk is so great, Amazon has the money and reach to spread its message to convince us the new service is beneficial.

If Amazon, and other companies, had to persuade people to sign up instead of sneaking their products through the back door, they would find ways to promote their products in clear, helpful language, not hide what they are up to in technical jargon and legalese.

Amazon did issue a “white paper” to customers about Sidewalk. You know, to clue them in. Here’s a sample passage:

“When the customer uses their mobile app to turn on their light, the command is identified by the Sidewalk Device ID(or Sidewalk-ID), which is A8905. The Sidewalk-ID is established during the device manufacturing process, and can be the device serial number for certain devices. The encryption process is similar to the incoming packet described previously, but in reverse order with several nuances.”

Got that?

We admit that it sticks in our craw that Jeff Bezos, the super-rich founder of Amazon, is getting us to subsidize the cost of his new service by tapping into our personally paid-for internet service. As Ashkan Soltani, former chief technologist at the Federal Trade Commission, told CBS, it’s questionable whether Amazon should help itself to bandwidth for which people pay a service fee. You won’t know who is sharing your personal signal or when.

Nobody should oppose new tech products just on general principles. We certainly don’t. They have made our lives easier and could make them easier still. And we really don’t begrudge a service like Sidewalk tapping into our home internet service in an emergency to keep a neighbor’s doorbell or security camera working.

But Amazon and Sidewalk really should be getting our explicit permission first.

We should be asked upfront what marvels of new technology we’d like to make part of our daily lives.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.