Jim Fisher

Heads up Amazon “Echo” users. On June 8, Amazon launched a new feature called Sidewalk that creates small, public internet networks powered by Echo smart speakers and Ring home security products in your neighborhood. Sidewalk will automatically be enabled on all your compatible Amazon devices. The internet privacy police kinda went crazy over this announcement. It sounds like Amazon essentially siphoning off some of your WiFi for Amazon’s convenience. I hope to clear up some of that confusion and do my small part to settle things down a bit.

An Amazon Echo is a small wireless speaker you can use to play music, ask questions, control devices in your home such as light switches and TV’s. Think of it as Amazon’s answer to “Okay Google.” The Ring doorbell is a wireless doorbell that alerts you with sound and video when someone approaches your front door. If you do not have an Amazon Echo speaker or Ring doorbell, none of this applies to you.

Amazon’s description reads: “Amazon Sidewalk is a shared network that helps devices work better. Sidewalk can help simplify new device setup, extend the low-bandwidth working range of devices to help find pets or valuables with Tile trackers, and help devices stay online even if they are outside the range of their home wifi. In the future, Sidewalk will support a range of experiences from using Sidewalk-enabled devices, such as smart security and lighting and diagnostics for appliances and tools.”

So what does that mean for you? It means that if you own an Echo or Ring Doorbell, you and many of your neighbors will all be enveloped in a shared low-power computer network. “Low power” meaning that you can’t use Sidewalk to watch Netflix or even check your email on your phone. Sidewalk is limited to only 80kbps - a small fraction of a typical home network bandwidth. But if you have a Tile tracker to keep track of your lost keys, the Tile will communicate with Sidewalk to tell you where you dropped them. You can purchase a pet tracker and know the whereabouts of your pet as long as he’s close to someone’s Echo. It also means that, should your home internet experience an outage, you may still be able to get notifications if someone rings your Ring doorbell--as long as your Ring doorbell is within range of a neighbor’s Echo or Ring doorbell. Lots of other small things will be able to talk to each other in the future via Sidewalk.

Are there any privacy concerns? Is Amazon able to spy on all of us? Well, no and no. At least no more than they already do. Sidewalk only communicates with other Sidewalk devices in your neighborhood and that data is encrypted. Amazon doesn’t “read'' that data. The only data sent to Amazon is security protocols to make sure the devices that are talking to each other are supposed to do so. If you’re still uncomfortable with the whole idea, it’s pretty easy to go into your device’s settings and disable Sidewalk.

Jim Fisher owns Excel Computer Services in Florence. Reach him at www.ExcelAL.com