When I was in graduate school, in the early 2010s, mesh networks were in vogue. Mesh networks are decentralized networks of computer devices that are able to pass online traffic between them without each having to be connected to an internet service provider, and researchers have suggested they might be an important and useful way of, for instance, establishing ad hoc local networks in the aftermath of natural disasters: Instead of having to connect to Comcast you just connect to the other nearby devices. Famously, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, mesh networks took off in some communities struggling to recover.
I’m used to hearing mesh networks described in positive terms, as a way to expand online connectivity and provide service in difficult-to-reach places at critical moments. So I was struck by the backlash against Amazon’s recently announced plans in late May to test run a mesh network among users of its Echo speaker and Ring security camera devices in the United States. Amazon Sidewalk, as the company has dubbed the proposal, will connect Ring and Echo devices across homes (and Wi-Fi networks) so that they can borrow internet access from one another. In other words, if you’re setting up a Ring camera on your porch and it’s a little outside the range of your home network, you could potentially connect to your neighbor’s network (if they also have an Amazon device) and borrow a little bit of their bandwidth and connectivity, as needed.
To be clear, that doesn’t mean your neighbors have access to your entire home network or the data being collected by your Amazon devices—it just means they may be able to piggyback off your internet connection occasionally. In fact, Amazon published a white paper that describes all the privacy protections put in place to make sure that different households’ data don’t end up being accessible to one another in any way. Perhaps you simply don’t trust Amazon as a company to implement the technical architecture they describe in that paper, but in that case you probably shouldn’t be buying their devices and trusting them with audio and video recordings in the first place. And from a technical standpoint, Amazon has been very solid when it comes to security protections for devices and data.
Maybe my reaction was colored by the rose-tinted memories of the mesh networking dialogue a decade ago, but I thought the Sidewalk program was a fairly clever system—even a rather community-oriented one, offering a way for neighbors to help patch the spotty areas in each other’s wireless networks. That help would only extend to Rings and Echoes, at the moment at least, but it’s potentially a step toward trying to design bigger and more interoperable mesh networks somewhere down the road that allowed for other third-party devices as well. (I think Amazon is probably right to limit what the network will be used for and not try to do too much too fast in terms of giving other devices access to this network all at once.) So I was taken a bit aback by the wave of hostile reactions and articles not just giving information about how to opt out of Amazon Sidewalk (which any Amazon user can do) but actively encouraging people to disable it before the program begins June 8.
There are at least three main criticisms of the Amazon Sidewalk plan: that Amazon should have given people more time to decide whether they wanted to opt out before launching the program, that the company should have made it opt-in instead of opt-out, and that it threatens users’ privacy and security. The first of those points is absolutely fair—a week is not a lot of time for people to learn about a new program and make an informed decision about whether they want to participate (though, in all honesty, I’m not sure how many more people would have read up on it if they’d been given a month or two). The second criticism is more complicated—yes, in general, it makes sense to not enroll people in new programs by default, but a mesh network is only useful if a significant number of people are part of it, so I can certainly see why Amazon would prefer to opt everyone in at the outset. It’s quite possible that an opt-in mesh network would ultimately lead to no mesh network at all.
Finally, there’s the question of security and privacy. But Amazon really does seem to have done considerable work beforehand to make sure its system was as well protected as possible. The Echo and Ring collect large quantities of audio and video data, which certainly raises privacy issues for many people, but the Sidewalk program applies only to users who already have those devices at home—presumably people who have already made the decision to trust Amazon with that data and its protection. The really significant and important privacy decision you make when you buy an Echo or a Ring (or any other internet-connected speaker or security camera) is whether you’re comfortable with someone collecting a lot of audio and video data from your house. Once you’ve made that decision—to trust Amazon with that data—the decision about whether to participate in Amazon Sidewalk is really more about how much people trust or want to help their neighbors than it is about how much they trust or want to support Amazon.
Importantly, your neighbors will not be able to see if you’re using their network and vice-versa. So even if your neighbors have a weak password or other lax security in place for their wireless network, it shouldn’t affect you because all information passed between the gateways and devices is encrypted.
There are also regulatory and legal issues raised by the Sidewalk program. Ars Technica quoted former FTC chief technology officer Ashkan Soltani describing Amazon as “effectively becoming a global ISP with a flick of a switch, all without even having to lay a single foot of fiber.” Soltani meant this as a criticism of what is already an enormous and very powerful company, but isn’t it also kind of incredibly cool?
The enormous expense and significant bureaucratic hurdles to laying fiber—digging up streets, obtaining permits—is a huge part of why there are so few companies that provide internet service in many places. To have more companies able to provide internet access in different ways with smaller upfront investments is actually a good thing. Amazon might not be your first-choice company to fill that role, and Echoes and Rings might not be the devices you think most urgently need that support, but it’s still an important step toward thinking about how we can provide more and better internet service in faster, less expensive ways.
Boosting connectivity for Echo and Ring devices is certainly a far cry from the idealistic natural disaster recovery use case for mesh networks, but these devices may be a useful starting point in a different way. Because everyone who owns an Echo or a Ring has already made the decision to trust Amazon with protecting lots of sensitive home data, it’s perhaps not unreasonable to think that many of them would also be comfortable with trusting Amazon’s mesh networking design. And Ring devices are often installed around the periphery of people’s homes, so they might especially benefit from a little signal boost if they are far from a household’s router.
By all means, opt out of Amazon Sidewalk if anything about this program makes you uncomfortable or if (despite already owning a Ring or Echo) you don’t trust the company enough to share a little of your home network with your neighbors safely. You’re under no obligation to participate in this mesh networking experiment, and it probably would have made more sense for Amazon to at least launch the program with an opt-in model that gave people more time to learn about how it works and whether they want to be involved.
But if you’re just learning about mesh networks for the first time and aren’t sure what to think, or whether this is something to be very worried about, I really don’t think it is. If you’ve already reconciled yourself to the privacy implications of owning an Echo or a Ring, the additional privacy and security drawbacks of participating in Sidewalk seem very limited and the benefits are potentially considerable, for you and for everyone around you.