The Bullshit Economy: How Amazon Sidewalk Steals Your Bandwidth

Yves here. I suppose it should come as no surprise that Amazon’s version of innovation, as demonstrated by its Sidewalk service, looks a lot like Wall Street’s: customer exploitation for fun and (greater and often hidden) profit. Nevertheless, I am gobsmacked both by Amazon’s gall and the fact that customers and ultimately regulators and legislators, haven’t yet put the kibosh on Sidewalk’s bandwidth purloining.

By Jared Holst,  the author at Brands Mean a Lot, a weekly commentary on the ways branding impacts our lives. Each week, he explores contradictions within the way politics, products, and pop-culture are branded for us, offering insight on what’s really being said. You can follow Jared on Twitter @jarholst. Originally published at Brands Mean a Lot

Amazon Drinks Your Milkshake

Imagine you could connect into your neighbor’s electrical power such that doing so would enable you to power electrical devices that might not be in a convenient location for an outlet from your home. Now imagine your home abuts your neighbors’ backyard such that it’s more convenient for them to plug in their hot tub to your home than it is to their own. This would cost you more in electricity bills.

Amazon Sidewalk is a new feature that enables Amazon devices like Rings and Echos to perform a similar function, but instead with neighboring wifi networks. Sidewalk empowers these devices to connect to other Sidewalk-enabled hardware at long ranges using nearby wifi and bluetooth signals. Just as the hot tub works further away from your neighbor’s home by plugging into yours, the point of Sidewalk is to extend the distance at which the devices work by plugging into nearby wifi networks away from the ‘home’ network.

Source: Amazon

Amazon, in its unceasing quest to widen its margins at the expense of its customers, plans to enhance its devices by allowing them to piggyback off of neighboring networks. If your neighbor has 5 Echos at the periphery of their property, it’s possible Amazon’s taking five tiny slivers of your broadband bandwidth, which you pay for.

With Sidewalk, Amazon discovered a new way to pass its costs onto consumers, bypassing government entirely and disintermediating the costs of product enhancements into hardware and wifi networks. The feature opens up a brand new front on the way corporations can pass their costs onto unwitting consumers to not absorb them directly.

Read Below to Find Out How Sidewalk is Bad

It’s not new information that Amazon, and dozens of other corporations, find ways to discreetly pass their costs along to the public. For instance, Amazon pays many of their workers such low wages that thousands are forced to rely on government assistance to survive. Taxpayers subsidize these corporations’ ability to pay their employees sub-subsistence wages, widening margins. Compared to some of the more arcane methods of boosting bottom lines like offshore tax havens and transfer pricing, the method feels quaint to the point of being offensive. Pay just enough to be on the right side of the law, and let the government–and the taxpayers who fund it–pick up the rest of the tab.

With Sidewalk, Amazon’s product enhancements are subsidized by the public’s wifi bills. If Amazon can do this, so can virtually any company with wifi-enabled devices that can be made mobile–Tile, Apple, Samsung and various types of auto manufacturers, to name a few. Although the current roster of Amazon devices using Sidewalk only require a small amount of wifi to improve their range, it’s not inconceivable that those devices could also increase their capability for streaming and delivering information and therefore increase the amount of bandwidth they require to operate at a distance.

It’s doubly infuriating when taken into account many of the streaming services run through these devices are supported by advertising revenue. Someone streaming on YouTube or Spotify on an Echo that’s using nearby wifi means that not only is Amazon using that wifi to make money, so too is the streaming service. A twofer at an unwitting neighbor’s expense.

Sidewalk’s Also Bad Because…(read below)

Amazon also coordinates with municipalities nationwide to share data and footage from Rings with police departments. And of course, there’s money involved: City governments, in partnership with Amazon, have been subsidizing–and in some cases promoting as well–Rings for citizens’ purchase. Amazon also supplied various police departments with coaching on which Ring talking points to incorporate into conversations with citizens in order to get access to their Ring data, some of which encourage downloading Neighbors. Neighbors, similar to its largest competitor Citizen, is an app that’s meant to alert users to emergencies, crimes, and other potentially dangerous events in their area. Imagine an app that lets you mistake fireworks for gunshots to everyone in your neighborhood, instead of just your partner.

Source: Ring advertisement from Addison, CA and Ring giveaway flyer from Wolcott, CT

Oh also, Neighbors, the crime reporting app mentioned above, is ad-supported. Classic.

Sidewalk enables Amazon’s surveillance products to extend their reach on private citizens’ dime. Police departments are already funded by tax dollars. The extension of Ring surveillance by way of private wifi is an unspoken public subsidy wherein citizens effectively enhance their ability to spy on one another. Meanwhile, Amazon makes money each time someone has the impulse to buy a Ring and consent to sharing their info with police departments.

What’s the Next Iteration?

With this sort of functionality in place–enabled in part because Amazon’s counting on customers being either too unsavvy or too busy to disable it–there’s no reason to believe Amazon will stop here. How about wifi-enabled digital advertising drones? Similar to those billboard trucks, but like, drones with screens. Nibbling up crumbs of your wifi so you can see tailored ads just outside your door about insoles or dish soap. If connected to your calendar or your wifi enabled car, the drones would even know when it’s best to stop by.

A digital advertising truck, bearing your author’s face. I approve the message.

All this so you can see if your FedEx delivery driver is handling your packages delicately.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. vlade

    British Telecom IIRC was doing something similar years back – if you bought a modem from them, unless you explicitly disabled it (which many users would not know how), it had (in addition to any private wireless network you had) a public wireless network hotspot.

    BT of course claimed it has no impact on your broadband.

    1. someone

      Not the same. With ISP using client hardware as hotspot, at least, in theory, they increase allocated bandwidth/allowances, to provide hotspot service to others.

      In the case of Sidewalk, Amazon is not your ISP, it is purely of consumer of bandwidth you pay for their benefit. Your ISP does not give you additional allowances for it. More over, it probably a technical violation of ISP terms.

  2. David

    In France, ISPs have had systems like this in place for many years. When you get an internet router, you can opt to allow others to make use of your network, and in return you get to make use of theirs, provided they themselves have also agreed. It’s thus limited to customers of the same ISP that have opted in. There are no costs involved, and I never found any appreciable drain on my own network. The system started in the days before 4G, when it could sometimes be a problem to find a hotspot you could use, but it’s much less commonly used now.

    1. Carolinian

      Lots of wifi routers now have a “guest” account where you can use your neighbor’s wifi if you know the password. I believe these special accounts may also use filtering to make sure you aren’t doing anything illegal on their wifi–not unlike the filtering used by most store wifi systems.

  3. John Beech

    Yves, glad you’re back! Sorry about the surgery and doubly sorry for the problems with mom at an urgent care or hospital ER (don’t know which). Also disgusted by the 90 bucks, which is part of the co-pay scam I despise. Not that I cannot afford my co-pays but I find it a disingenuous system considering I pay $1827/mo for my health insurance. Disingenuous? Nope, I misspoke, dishonest! Rant mode off.

    Regarding Sidewalk, a friend has it. Loves his ‘Alexa’ and the party tricks like turning lights on and off. Moreover, he doesn’t in the least bit mind it listening in on his conversations. And doesn’t care about it sharing his bandwidth. Says he gets to use his neighbor’s in return. Thinks it’s good.

    Me? I buy a lot with Amazon and love that but abhor even the thought of Amazon snooping on me to predict what I’ll be want to search for next based on conversations or idle comments, e.g. to show me adverts. In a word . . . creepy! And while I’ve explained how it’s basically snooping all the time, he just doesn’t care.

    Me? I don’t get it but he’s the type that’s happy as a clam in neighborhood with a housing association. Meanwhile, I’m the type that can see a neighbor if I try real hard and use binoculars because I like my elbow room.

    Add one thing. Reports of an iPhone being used to snoop on people in their bedroom by providing prurient content used to ‘check’ how Siri is performing speech-to-text leads me to leave mine in the living room when I go to bed. Argh!

  4. Bill Smith

    Hasn’t Comcast been doing something like this for years?

    That’s how, if you have a Comcast account, when you travel you can log on.

    1. Objective Ace

      I do not have first hand knowledge, but the comcast tech I spoke with said thats actually something different. If you look up at telephone poles, randomly some of them will have a gray trashcan sized box on them. Inside that box is the modem that you tap into when travelling.

      Again, I’m no expert. Just relaying an exchange from a couple years ago

  5. The Rev Kev

    Sounds like Amazon cannot make up their mind whether their customers are just their customers or whether they are also their products as well as their resources. There should be major protests about this move by Amazon. Maybe a nation-wide letter & email writing campaign. They could send it to a publication that is widely respected in DC and has nation-wide coverage. They should send all this correspondence to the ‘Washington Post’ then. Oh, wait…

    1. Carla

      Oh, Rev Kev, I think Amazon made up its mind a long, long time ago — along with FB, Google, and others. Users are their raw material, their product line — AND, in paying for the privilege: their customers. It is the perfect grift.

      Bezos: most dangerous man on the planet. If only that petition denying him re-entrance to earth following his space flight had some teeth in it!

  6. larry

    There is a large macroeconomic error at the beginning of this article. And it is that taxes fund the government. Taxes fund nothing. Even the chair of the congressional budget conmmittee seems to realize this — In this particular case, this error does not completely undermine the author’s argument, but it can and has done for others. We have to get away from this out of date thinking. i don’t understand what the problem could be. Elementary MMT isn’t rocket science.

    1. Paul Harvey 0swald

      I might be out over my skis, but taxes definitely fund local governments. Federal taxes don’t fund the federal government.

      1. larry

        You are right. Local government functions are funded from taxation and federal (national government) support. But the article was talking primarily in terms of national government functions. The differece, that is, which sector one is talking about, should be made clear.

    2. EOH

      I would say “government” rather than taxpayer. The financial support or subsidy to private sector corporations comes from the government. Government, in turn, receives its funding, in part, from tax paid to it. The distinction is important because it allocates agency more accurately. The great and observant public – as opposed to many corporations – may pay taxes, but it has little influence over government policy and action – or inaction.

      1. larry

        Taxes do not form part of the funding base of any sovereign govereign with its own sovereign currency,in whole or in part. It is nothing more than a bookkeeping exercise by the Treasury. Taxes have a number of important functions but underwriting government expenditure is not one of them. As I mentioned in a previous comment, taxes do form part of the funding base of local governments, just not national ones.

        1. rob

          where do you find evidence that tax revenues don’t fund any federal programs? MMT may postulate this, but it is without merit; as the money received in tax payments is accounted for in gov’t spending.
          What the gov’t doesn’t get in fees,tarriffs,taxes… etc. it BORROWS.
          This means that not only does the government go into debt to pay the bills, This year for example, 17% of government expenditure went to servicing debt payments.
          If MMT were serious, someone ought to tell the congress…But since MMT can’t back up that claim…. no one has.
          MMt claims that government just “creates” money… but this is absurd. Most money “created” in us dollars is created by banks when they make loans… The government doesn’t make money…(except a small amount when they make coins @1%-3% of the total.
          The government Borrows the money the banks (AKA the fed) ,make.Hence our national debt.
          Really, Where is the evidence that taxes don’t fund anything…. ?

          1. Basil Pesto

            Stephanie Keton’s ‘The Deficit Myth’ is a good popular introduction to the topic.

            She had this early paper which does, I believe, constitute proof. Prior to her research on the topic, she believed as you do.

            Mosler’s free, short ebook the Seven Deadly Innocent Frauds of Economic Policy is regarded as something of a foundational text.

            Bill Mitchell’s blog covers this ad nauseam. This is probably the most germane post:

            He has also co-authored a textbook called with L Randall Wray called ‘Macroeconomics’.

            There have been quotes from, iirc, Greenspan and other essentially conceding that the gov’t doesn’t have to tax to spend.

            You’re quite wrong, but I used to think the same way. I’ve spent time looking for non-fallacious, good faith counterarguments of MMT’s key tenets, but as far as I can tell they don’t exist. If you know of any I’d be glad to take a look.

            1. rob

              I am well aware of the MMT hype circuit, and the “regular” voices…. but they don’t actually address the real money creation system we have in the US.
              Banks make most of the money ,that is denominated in US dollars. The government only issues the debts.
              The glaring inconsistency of MMT, is that these MMT hype people, all claim the “government” makes the money…. which is demonstrably false. The banks make the money. Bankers decide who gets it first… and the idea that the government creates money is false. The fed, which is a consortium of private banks, who have the ability given to them with the federal reserve act to create the money, for which they accept the gov’t iou’s…i.e. debt instruments, as collateral.
              The mmt mantra is false. There is no “sovereign” if the gov’t is borrowing money made by banks. There is no “sovereign” deciding where to spend that money. there is no sovereign, who is creating the money in dollars they are spending.
              The congress, and the government SHOULD be creating money, but that would require a change in the law. and abolition of the federal reserve act. This is why we need monetary reform so badly.
              If you want a beginning .. here.

              1. Basil Pesto

                since you carry on with the ‘MMT hype circuit’ epithets – definitely no axe to grind there – I hope you’ll not find me unduly uncharitable if I dismiss the above link as crackpot; erroneous, misrepresentative and superficial as it is (taking three works from a single American MMT scholar, cherrypicking auotes, and pretending that’s the MMT corpus as a whole – while admittedly more effort than most detractors bother to take – is fairly risible).

                1. rob

                  that’s quite understandable. I wasn’t meaning to “thread jack” anyway.
                  have a good day.

  7. p fitzsimon

    I may be mistaken but doesn’t xfinity allow customers to connect through any xfinity modem? When I visit with my son who has no router I can connect my devices through some anonymous neighbors modem. Although I believe the connection is through a separate isolated channel.

    1. Jason Boxman

      But in this case, it would be their device. With Amazon, they aren’t the network provider, so it is the Amazon user’s bandwidth, and service agreement, in play here.

    2. EOH

      That anonymous neighbor needs to firewall their modem better, so that all access to it requires permission.

      Amazon hopes to add another revenue stream by free-riding. It might also be creating a new industry standard. Lina Khan might want to add investigating this to her To Do list.

  8. TimH

    I’ve mentioned this before… the problem with a mesh network like Sidewalk is that consumer electronics that have newly grown surveillance and/or ad features, like TVs, will licence access to the mesh to access internet without user involvement.

  9. George Phillies

    Efforts to use someone else’s router work less well if they have a wired system.

  10. Young

    If you are a Comcast subscriber, you may be interested to be aware of their new TOS. They will obtain your credit report and sell it to their partners with your automatic consent, as stated in the TOS.

    This should be illegal, but, the corporations make the laws.

    For me, my other choice is the intermittent internet service from DirectTV.

  11. Sue inSoCal

    Imho, there are no lawful TOS agreements, nor are there any “privacy policies” that mean anything. They are adhesion contracts, pure and simple. (I just had a roaring fight with a company/app who is in Finland, collects all data, zero “privacy,” will not comply with California privacy laws, but tried to tell me I can handle everything by “phone settings” except, of course, my location, even if it’s off. Grrr. Rant over.)

    But this Bezos’s “I control the horizontal and the vertical” in your neighborhood is an utter outrage, as is the Ring doorbell and other listening goodies that run 24/7. Is anyone tiring of underwriting billionaires and giving their private lives away in the bargain? For mere “convenience”? And regarding The Ring, etc, are they that frightened of others? Looks like it.

    I can’t find where the (imho) odious NextDoor app sends their copious “neighborhood data”. It’s in every city now. The app used to be, (oooh!) by invitation only, which was a total fraud. Here’s some info. (From 2019) NextDoor is funded by venture capitalists. Who’s the data sold to?

    Violent crime is down. Bezos’s neighborhood net nonsense, NextDoor, the Ring, operate on fear.

    1. Arizona Slim

      I’m a neighborhood association officer here in Tucson. In addition to fielding indignant neighbor complaints about the behavior of other neighbors, I also monitor the NextDoor board for this part of the city.

      Let me tell you something about NextDoor: It makes Facebook look sane.

      If you think that some of your neighbors are a bit much, you’ll probably find them on NextDoor, doing a convincing imitation of a hornets’ nest after it’s been whacked by a stick.

  12. Sue inSoCal

    Thanks, Slim. Was on it for a while back when it got popular and I got an “invitation” from a buddy in Seattle area. Holy moly! What a bunch of busybodies! It got nastier and nastier…I jumped ship pronto! (And it collects a LOT of data…)

  13. drumlin woodchuckles

    I am just a layman here, but this doesn’t seem like just “passing costs on”. This seems like outright stealing, robbery, looting, etc. Am I wrong to think so?

    I mean . . . . this is stealing bandwidth from people who are may not even be Amazon customers in order to give that stolen bandwidth to Amazon customers.

Comments are closed.