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Blog > Internet Privacy > Big Data Privacy Tug Of War Is On
 June 28, 2021

Big Data Privacy Tug Of War Is On

Technology illustration of how data follows people. Rows of numbers surround a man walking down the street.

Is sharing internet with neighbors risky?

An identity crisis has hit the world’s information technology industry. Big Tech giants like Apple, Amazon and Comcast have taken sides in the debate about whether data indicators like tracking should become more private or more ubiquitous. In many cases, consumers are asked to share a piece of their internet system with neighbors–often without fully understanding genuine risks. Perhaps you’ve already heard about Amazon’s new attempt to expand the range of its in-home products like Ring and Echo. Otherwise, your connected devices morph into Sidewalk Bridges immediately as of June 8. Amazon’s unique feature is automatic; it’s up to you to opt-out. Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency approach lets iPhone users refuse tracking permission if they choose by making users opt in to permit info collection. These two approaches are miles apart, and users should know what’s at stake for them in this new privacy tug of war.

Amazon Sidewalk is no walk in the park

Amazon has launched greater connectivity for the Internet of Things (IoT) devices like doorbells, locks and cameras. Their new service sounds benign. The company calls it Amazon Sidewalk, and who doesn’t like sidewalks? However, security experts raised concerns the minute it was announced. “Amazon Sidewalk creates a low-bandwidth network with the help of Sidewalk Bridge devices, including select Echo and Ring devices. These Bridge devices share a small portion of your internet bandwidth which is pooled together to provide these services to you and your neighbors,” the announcement stated. While Sidewalk initially sets limits of uses to IoT devices like Ring, Amazon documents mention there’s “a chance” it could reduce your in-home internet speeds. There’s little doubt IoT devices would enjoy more dependable connections and a broader range. For example, pet finders could tap Sidewalk to locate a pup who’s slipped outside and traveled beyond the reach of the owner’s personal network. Here’s Amazon’s list of Sidewalk’s benefits; “This can include experiences ranging from finding pets or valuables that may be lost and improving reliability for devices like leak sensors or smart lighting, to diagnostics for appliances and power tools. For example, smart lighting at the edge of a user’s property, or a garage door lock in a poor coverage zone, can receive connectivity support from a participating neighbor’s gateway.” The more, the merrier is Amazon’s approach, and if you own one of these devices, you’re connected. More participating neighbors equals a more robust localized network. The company has written a white paper on the privacy and security of Sidewalk, which employs several layers of encryption to show they’re serious about security, too. Researchers are still not sold, given Ring’s history of data breaches and hacks Amazon has experienced. In 2019, Ring credentials for over 3,500 accounts were discovered on the dark web. With those passcodes, hackers had the tools to access home cameras and other features.

Apple’s approach

A new Apple commercial for iPhone’s latest operating system takes the opposite approach as the firm begins a privacy push. You’ve probably seen the commercial. A harried guy buys some coffee; then the barista starts to follow him all over town, as other trackers join in to grab the man’s data until dozens are traveling in the coffee drinker’s wake. “Can I have a taste of your ice cream?” the announcer begins. The commercial ends with, “Why don’t you mind your own business?” as the consumer decides to deny data sharing. One by one, his trackers vanish into thin air. It’s a strong message—just say no! Pushing privacy with its App Tracker Transparency feature represents a directional shift for Apple, which has in the past thrived on gathering user data. Privacy advocates have lauded the company for offering a simple tool to limit surveillance in our digital world. Not everyone’s pleased, of course. Facebook has taken exception to the opt-in policy, and its dispute with Apple could end up in court one day. Meanwhile, Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has reintroduced legislation that would require all data firms to follow Apple’s lead if it becomes law.

More network share plans

Comcast, one of the nation’s top internet providers, launched a broadband sharing feature several years ago. It creates a hotspot on every customer’s broadband service. Nearby Comcast/Xfinity customers can access part of your network for temporary use. They simply search for nearby connections and use their Comcast login credentials. The company claims it offers faster connections and the plan has launched over 8 million hotspots for subscribers. Its login requirement does make this option preferable to free WiFi that is easily compromised. But you’re still letting strangers tap your home network if you don’t opt-out. Is this necessary when your smartphone can generate a hotspot that delivers greater security?

Need to know

Not all Amazon IoT devices create Sidewalk Bridges, even if you’d like to try the feature. Only newer versions of Ring cameras and most Echo models can. To find out your options, check a list of devices with Sidewalk connection ability as Amazon takes IoT up a level. Low-power networks like Sidewalk can cover half a mile or more around your home base. That could be convenient, but is it safe? Can you trust more data to Amazon, given its history of cloud-based server breaches? Or the Ring data leaks? Or recent employee alerts about data losses?

Opting out is easy

Well, maybe not too easy. Amazon does provide the chance to cancel Sidewalk at any time, but you need the firm’s Ring or Alexa apps–even if the device you want to disconnect isn’t mobile. Remember, these two apps track a lot. Ring cameras have a specific opt-out procedure, but their info page on how to cancel still pitches Sidewalk by advising it can help during internet outages. Echo home assistants also require an app to alter settings. Naturally, Amazon doesn’t want users to opt out. They make money selling your data. That’s why the program connects by default. Reversing an unwanted Sidewalk connection will deny you access to its features, but it will also deny Amazon access to your activities. Comcast also offers an option to decline usage if you really don’t like their program but does not promote that prominently.

Shield yourself

IDShield isn’t too keen on network sharing. Your home network of routers, modems, assistants and IoT devices is already vulnerable to hacking—especially if you haven’t changed all default passwords. Data breaches will continue to occur; the best strategy is to reduce your digital footprint, not expand it. IDS monitors lots of data points that, if it’s compromised or leaked on some dark corner of the internet, can make you more susceptible to scammers. We track email addresses, bank accounts, credit card accounts and much more 24/7. If you’re concerned about privacy, look at the many ways we can help you guard yours. We’ll also keep you updated on this privacy/no privacy battle as it unfolds.

IDShield is a product of Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. d/b/a LegalShield (“LegalShield”). LegalShield provides access to identity theft protection and restoration services. For complete terms, coverage, and conditions, please see an identity theft plan. All Licensed Private Investigators are licensed in the state of Oklahoma. This is meant to provide general information and is not intended to provide legal advice, render an opinion, or provide any specific recommendations.


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