Shortly after the launch of Apple’s AirTags, Amazon announced that it is expanding its sidewalk network with Tile, the smart lock company Level, and the smartwatch maker CareBand for the elderly. The news is the biggest expansion to Amazon Sidewalk since it was announced last year, and offers a glimpse into how this company works from device to device to help people find lost items or extend connectivity beyond WiFi. And while we can all agree that networks like Amazon Sidewalk and Apple Find My, which enable AirTag’s tracking capabilities, make losing things less annoying, we don’t speak seriously enough about how to prevent them from happening be abused.
At this point, the average person is probably still unclear what exactly Amazon Sidewalk is. It’s a type of secondary mesh network where Echo and Ring customers’ devices act as bridges to expand connectivity. It works by “borrowing” a small portion of your bandwidth and adding it to other participating Echo and Ring devices in your area. When you enable Apple’s Find My, your Apple devices act as Bluetooth beacons to find other Apple devices – even when they are offline – and forward them to the owner of the device.
The fact that nearly 1 billion Apple devices are part of the Find My network is a big reason Apple’s AirTags find lost items with incredible precision. Through this logic, by adding Tile, Level’s smart locks, and the CareBand booth, Amazon will create a more effective network for tracking items. Starting June 8th, Amazon will flip the switch on the sidewalk, and Tile integration will begin on June 14th. That sounds fine. You can expand the range of tile trackers while improving the position of the devices in your home. Alexa has reportedly been able to tell you which Echo device is closest to your misplaced item.
Tile has had its own mesh network for a while, but it wasn’t very extensive. The partnership with Amazon will give Tile a massive boost. With the Level Smart Locks, joining Sidewalk is designed to allow your smart home devices to continue to communicate with each other no matter where your phone is. With the CareBand you can keep track of where elderly relatives with dementia are without must be connected to WiFi.
What is wrong with that? Well, nothing if these are used as intended, with the best of intentions. It’s what happens when you are Not. Apple and Amazon state that they take care of data protection and activate encryption for security reasons. With the AirTags, Apple has implemented functions to prevent unwanted tracking. Amazon has also published a whitepaper on dealing with data protection and security with Amazon Sidewalk. The problem is, we don’t know how rigorously these precautionary measures have been tested and verified in real world tests for the worst-case scenario: perpetrators who use these networks to track people without their consent. Just because companies encrypt your data doesn’t mean these products can’t be used in creatively horrific ways to invade your privacy.
Either Gizmodo and MashableWhen evaluating the AirTags, it was found that the trackers track people with alarming accuracy without their knowledge or consent. Users who have not updated to iOS 14.5 will not receive notifications that an unwanted tracker is near them. Even after you’ve updated, you might not see a notification if the AirTag doesn’t track you for an unspecified amount of time. Android users are also at a disadvantage. If they are tracked via an AirTag, they will not be notified until they have been physically out of their stalker’s range for three days. In many abusive situations, you may never reach that particular threshold. This isn’t paranoia from tech reviewers either. The National Network to End Domestic Violence said Fast company It was feared that AirTags could be misused as surveillance tools to discreetly track a partner, and that it is common for halfway houses to thoroughly search a survivor’s equipment for such surveillance equipment.
There is a temptation to indulge in whataboutism. GPS trackers for children and pets have been around for years. Tiles have been around for ages. It’s not that AirTags were a well-kept secret. Hell, smartphones can be easily misused this way too. Why stink now? The reason why this moment is exactly the time the alarm goes off is because both Apple’s Find My and Amazon Sidewalk have the potential to make these devices easy to use, affordable, accessible, and extremely accurate, without that WiFi or GPS are required.
And you don’t even have to opt for these networks to be vulnerable to their tracking capabilities. There are 1.65 billion Apple devices in active use since January 2021. According to Statista there is 46.5 million Amazon Echo Devices in the US Both Find My and Amazon Sidewalk rely on as many people as possible to participate in order to be effective. Therefore, all of these devices ping each other in the background with exact positions, but this scaling also means that it doesn’t matter whether you as an individual choose not to participate (which in both cases, You can). What matters is that most likely everyone around you has signed up and there is nothing you can do about it. As long as an Apple or Amazon Echo device is nearby, you can be tracked by a small, slightly hidden Bluetooth device that doesn’t need to be connected to the internet, cellular network, or GPS satellite to report when where you are.
The myth is that these abusive situations are rare; Things that happen to other people under rare circumstances. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Abuse and stalking are depressingly common and commonplace. Domestic violence numbers increased sharply during the pandemic, and the CDC also says that one in four women and one in seven men will experience physical violence from a partner in their lifetime. In the USA, one in six women and one in 17 menor gross 19.3 million women and 5.1 million menwill experience stalking in their life. It goes without saying that some abusers will take advantage of the accuracy and convenience of Find My and Amazon Sidewalk – and that they will test the limits of the protections in place by Apple and Amazon. Because of this, we need to have this conversation now, because honestly, logging out is an illusion. If keeping everyone safe means losing track of your items, it may be a sacrifice we should make together.