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Amazon Sidewalk extends your network range, but security is already in question

The signal protocol will help you use smart gadgets outside your home.

James Martin/CNET

At its Alexa event on Wednesday, Amazon announced a new low-bandwidth network called Amazon Sidewalk that could extend the range at which you can control your devices beyond what Bluetooth and Wi-Fi currently allow. 

Amazon Sidewalk taps the 900MHz band of the radio spectrum -- typically used for amateur radio -- to extend the distance at which you can control your smart home devices, Dave Limp, senior vice president of devices and services said during the event. This could have a lot of implications for smart gardens, outdoor lights and mailbox sensors. 

Amazon launched the protocol for the network Wednesday, but availability is not yet known. The company has completed a test deployment with 700 Amazon employees in the Los Angeles area, Limp said during the event: The Sidewalk hubs cast a signal as far as a mile, and combined to connect most of the city. 

With Amazon Sidewalk, the tech giant is addressing a market need, said Forrester analyst Jeff Pollard. However, the network also brings up several security concerns. 

"The initial concern is really about what all the devices connected to Sidewalk collect," Pollard said. "If use cases like home automation or IoT devices make use of this technology, they generate telemetry data. Connected devices -- especially in the home -- give vast amounts of information about your behaviors and activities, which could also go to Amazon with this connectivity."

For example, anything a connected device needs to communicate back to a management console or a manufacturer for support purposes could become "readable" by Amazon -- something the company did not have visibility into before, Pollard said.  

It could also be possible for Amazon and others to use the network to identify individuals, said Engin Kirda, a professor of computer science at Northeastern University. 

"Signals, in general, can be used by third parties with special equipment to identify devices and the movement of these devices across regions," Kirda said. Every time a company provides a service involving wireless signals -- think T-Mobile or Google Fi -- they can also track the geolocation of users, and use that information to improve the quality of service. However, it could be used for advertisement targeting as well, Kirda said.

Amazon will need to address how users will authenticate, what kind of encryption will be used, and how easy or difficult it will be for third parties to gain access to Sidewalk, or to use signals to pinpoint devices and users, Kirda added. 

Amazon also announced a smart dog tag coming next year, called Fetch. If your dog ever runs away, you'll be able to use the Amazon Sidewalk network to help find them. The idea is, if Sidewalk becomes a popular protocol, devices in your neighbor's home might pick up your dog's Fetch so you can track it beyond your yard. You'll know when you dog bolts, but will also be able to see where he's gone to.

But even Fetch raises potential security flaws, Pollard said. "It's great to get an alert your dog left the yard, but those devices could also send data to Amazon like the frequency, duration, destination and path of your dog walks," he said. "That seems innocuous enough, but what could that data mean for you when combined with other data? It's the unintended -- and unexpected -- consequences of technology and the data it collects that often come back to bite us (pardon the pun)." 

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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Originally published Sept. 25 at 11.19 a.m. PT.
Updates, at 11.24 a.m. PT: Adds more information; Sept. 26 at 12:30 p.m. PT: Adds security analyst comments.