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Own an Echo? Amazon may be helping itself to your bandwidth

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David Limp

Do you own an Amazon smart device? If so, odds are good that the company is already sharing your internet connection with your neighbors unless you’ve specifically told it not to.

On Tuesday, the company launched a program that forces users of many Echo smart speakers and Ring security cameras to automatically share a small portion of their home wireless bandwidth with neighbors. The only way to stop it is to turn it off yourself.

Amazon says the program, called Amazon Sidewalk, is a way to make sure lights, smart locks and other gadgets outside the home and out of reach of a Wi-Fi connection stay working.

But some experts warn that the technology is so new that privacy and security risks remain unclear. And almost no one seems happy that Amazon forced consumers into Amazon Sidewalk — or that many people may not know they can opt out of it.

DID AMAZON TELL CUSTOMERS THIS WAS HAPPENING?

Amazon says it sent emails to customers last month and in November that Sidewalk was coming. The company says you’ll also get a notification when you set up gadgets that work with Sidewalk.

HOW CAN I STOP THIS?

Once you know about it, it’s relatively straightforward, if not exactly simple, to opt out of Sidewalk. Echo users can go into the Alexa app, tap “More” in the lower right hand corner, then tap “Settings,” then “Account Settings,” where they’ll find a section for Amazon Sidewalk and a button to disable it. In the Ring app, go to “Control Center” and then tap “Sidewalk.”

WHY IS AMAZON DOING THIS?

The idea behind Sidewalk is to integrate residential wireless connections into a “mesh network” that can extend coverage to areas home Wi-Fi can’t reach. Amazon’s Echo and Ring devices band together to create a this network by grabbing a slice of bandwidth from each cooperative home network. That can extend the range of devices designed to work with Sidewalk so they’ll stay connected even when away from your home network.

One example of such a device is Tile, a tracking device that can be placed on keys or a dog’s collar. If your dog goes missing in a neighborhood where Sidewalk is working, it might turn up quickly via Tile.

Other products that work with Sidewalk include smart locks that can be controlled by phone and wearable devices that can track people with dementia who may wander. Amazon expects additional devices, including outdoor lights and motion detectors, will work with Sidewalk before long.

HOW DOES IT WORK?

Amazon is tapping into a variety of radio technologies, including one called LoRa for its long range and better known for industrial and business applications such as keeping track of cattle roaming through pasturelands.

“The goal here is not to create coverage for a single home,” said Marc Pegulu of chipmaker Semtech, which is partnering with Amazon on the technology. “It’s kind of a shared network, a community shared network.”

Among other things, devices connected to the shared network can supposedly search for the best signal in a way that can preserve their battery life.

Thomas Clausen, a computer science professor at France’s École Polytechnique, says that the network Amazon is creating could be a good thing provided that it’s open and accessible, because it would make it easier and cheaper to use internet-connected devices and sensors and spark new innovations.

“But of course, when a behemoth like Amazon, or Apple or Google or Microsoft, create a platform, they also can end up controlling the platform and that can stifle innovation,” he says.

WHAT ARE THE RISKS?

Hackers could potentially infiltrate home networks via Sidewalk, said Eric Null, a policy manager at digital rights group Access Now. If that happens, Null said hackers could observe everything you do, take over your devices or access your files to steal information.

“It’s only a matter of time before someone’s network gets hacked and data gets breached,” said Null.

William Tong, Connecticut’s attorney general, warned consumers this week that the program was “uncharted territory” and that people should opt-out of Sidewalk unless they are sure their privacy and security will be protected.

“Wireless networks are already notoriously vulnerable to hacks and breaches,” Tong wrote in a statement. “Families need better information and more time before giving away a portion of their bandwidth to this new system.”

WHAT DOES AMAZON SAY?

When asked about privacy and security concerns, an Amazon spokesman said he couldn’t respond to “hypothetical situations.” The company didn’t respond to a request to make an executive available for an interview, but said that data that flows through its network has three-layers of encryption that’s meant to to keep hackers from seeing it.

Samir Jain, director of policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said Amazon’s efforts to encrypt data was a good step. But Jain said that it’s hard to identify security vulnerabilities until a new technology is deployed in the real world.

WHICH DEVICES WANT TO SHARE MY INTERNET?

Echo devices that share network bandwidth via Sidewalk include the third generation and newer versions of the Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Dot for Kids and the Echo Dot with Clock. The Echo Show 5, 8, 10; the second generation of the Echo Show; Echo Spot; Echo Plus; Echo Studio; Echo Input; Echo Flex.

Sidewalk-enabled Ring devices include the Ring Floodlight Cam; Ring Spotlight Cam Wired; and Ring Spotlight Cam Mount.

DOES AMAZON HAVE BIGGER AMBITIONS?

Amazon has explained Sidewalk in the context of consumer devices such as cameras and speakers. But it could also one day integrate the technology into its core business: delivering goods.

For example, the company could embed tiny internet-connected devices into cardboard packages to help track them, said Clausen of École Polytechnique.

“Having integration of alarm systems, presence detection of whether or not people are there, will potentially allow Amazon to create more efficient delivery schedules and fewer re-deliveries,” he says. That could be one application Amazon is thinking about, he added.


NEW YORK (AP) — By JOSEPH PISANI and MATT O’BRIEN AP Business Writers.

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For many Haitian migrants, journey to Texas started online

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For many Haitian migrants, journey to Texas started online

For the final leg of his journey from Chile to the United States, Haitian migrant Fabricio Jean followed detailed instructions sent to him via WhatsApp from his brother in New Jersey who had recently taken the route to the Texas border.

His brother wired him money for the trip, then meticulously mapped it out, warning him of areas heavy with Mexican immigration officials.

“You will need about 20,000 pesos (about $1,000 U.S. dollars) for the buses. You need to take this bus to this location and then take another bus,” recounted Jean, who spoke to The Associated Press after reaching the border town of Del Rio.

What Jean didn’t expect was to find thousands of Haitian migrants like himself crossing at the same remote spot. The 38-year-old, his wife and two young children earlier this month joined as many as 14,000 mostly Haitian migrants camped under a Del Rio bridge.

A confluence of factors caused the sudden sharp increase at the Texas town of about 35,000 residents. Interviews with dozens of Haitian migrants, immigration attorneys and advocates reveal a phenomenon produced partly by confusion over the Biden administration’s policies after authorities recently extended protections for the more than 100,000 Haitians living in the United States.

It also reflects the power of Facebook, YouTube and platforms like WhatsApp, which migrants use to share information that can get distorted as it speeds through immigrant communities, directing migration flows. That’s especially true for tight-knit groups like the Creole-and-French-speaking Haitians, many of whom left their homeland after its devastating 2010 earthquake and have been living in Latin America, drawn by Brazil and Chile’s once-booming economies.

In extending protections for Haitians this spring, the Biden administration cited security concerns and social unrest in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the temporary protections were limited to those residing in the U.S. before July 29 — but that condition was often missing in posts, leading Haitians outside the United States to believe they, too, were eligible.

Mayorkas acknowledged that this week, saying “we are very concerned that Haitians who are taking the irregular migration path are receiving misinformation that the border is open,” or that they qualify for protected status despite the expired deadline.

“I want to make sure it is known that this is not the way to come to the United States,” he said.

Thousands of Haitians have been stuck in Mexican border towns since 2016, when the Obama administration abruptly halted a policy that initially allowed them in on humanitarian grounds.

Online messages touting the Mexican town of Ciudad Acuña, across from Del Rio, started after President Joe Biden took office and began reversing some of the Trump administration’s immigration policies.

Ciudad Acuña has been spared the drug and gang violence seen elsewhere along the border. Some of the social media posts recommending it appear to have come from human smugglers seeking to drum up business, according to immigrant advocates.

Haitians began crossing there this year, but their numbers ballooned after a Biden administration program that briefly opened the door to some asylum seekers ended, said Nicole Phillips, of the San Diego-based Haitian Bridge Alliance, which advocates for Haitian migrants. The program allowed in a select number of people deemed by humanitarian groups to be at high risk in Mexico.

Once it ceased in August, people panicked, and the messages recommending Ciudad Acuña “went viral,” Phillips said.

“That’s why they rushed at this time to get in,” she said. “They realized they wouldn’t be able to get in legally through a port-of-entry like they were hoping.”

Del Rio is just one example of how technology that has put a smartphone in the hands of nearly every migrant is transforming migration flows, according to advocates. Migrants often monitor the news and share information on routes. The most popular platform is WhatsApp, which connects 2 billion people worldwide.

In 2020, after Turkey announced that the land border with Greece was open, thousands of migrants headed there – only to find the gates closed on the Greek side. Similar sudden mass migrations have happened elsewhere in Europe.

In 2018, social media posts and WhatsApp messages fueled caravans that swelled to 10,000 mostly Central American migrants who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Last week, in a Facebook group for Haitians in Chile with 26,000 members, one member posted specific instructions on routes through Mexico. It included paths to avoid and recommended certain bus companies.

“Good luck and be careful,” said the post, written in Haitian Creole.

Another member shared a different route in the comments. The group’s members have since relayed stories of horrific conditions in Del Rio and risks of being deported.

The International Organization for Migration found most of the 238 Haitians who were surveyed in March after passing through a 60-mile (100-kilometer) stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama known as the Darien Gap received route information from family or friends who had made the dangerous trek.

About 15% said they saw instructions on the internet.

Agency spokesman Jorge Gallo said the instructions led the migrants to believe crossing the gap was “difficult but not impossible.”

But just as similar messages drew many Haitians to Del Rio, news of the Biden administration deporting hundreds on the Texas border caused some to change their plans.

A 32-year-old Haitian woman who made it to Del Rio with her two teenage children bought bus tickets to Mexico City after receiving a cousin’s audio message via WhatsApp. She previously lived in Chile for four years.

“Wait in Mexico until this month is over. They will pick up everyone under the bridge. After that, they will give me the contact to enter Miami,” said the recording in Creole, which she played for an AP reporter. The AP is withholding the woman’s name to protect her safety.

Facebook Inc., which owns WhatsApp, allows people to exchange information about crossing borders, even illegally, but its policy bars posts that ask for money for services that facilitate human smuggling.

Robins Exile said he and his pregnant wife, who left Brazil after he lost his job amid the pandemic-wracked economy, headed to Tijuana, Mexico, instead after seeing warnings via YouTube and WhatsApp from fellow Haitian migrants.

“A lot of Haitians are advising now not to come to Acuña. They say it’s no longer a good place,” he said.

On Wednesday, Antonio Pierre, 33, who was camped in Del Rio with his wife and daughter, listened to the news on his friend’s cellphone.

“The U.S. is releasing some but just a few,” he said, referring to U.S. officials who told the AP on Tuesday that thousands of Haitians in custody were being let go and ordered to report to an immigration office, contradicting the Biden administration’s announcement that all Haitians camped in the town would be expelled to Haiti.

Nelson Saintil and his wife and four children had been camped in Texas but moved back to Mexico as they awaited word on where to go next to avoid deportation.

“I do not want to be like mice who do not find out that they are falling into a trap,” he said. “Because returning to Haiti is to bury a person alive.”


DEL RIO, Texas (AP)

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Facebook footed $13 billion bill on security since 2016, report finds

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Facebook publicized that since 2016 the social network mogul invested over $13 billion by onboarding 40,000 new staffers to endorse the platform’s security and safety measures, following a series of leaks by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

Weeks after the Wall Street Journal’s “The Facebook Files” were published, the social media giant went back over to the same grounds and revealed in a blog post the extent it is willing to take to safeguard and maintain safety and security on its platform.

“In the past, we didn’t address safety and security challenged early enough in the product development process,” Facebook said.

“But we have fundamentally changed that approach. Today, we embed teams focusing specifically on safety and security issues directly into product development teams, allowing us to address these issues during our product development process, not after it,” the post added.

In its series of allegations, the WSJ averred that Facebook purposely postponed any action implementation during the COVID-19 period, even though the Big Tech giant was aware of the severity of the situation and the effects of spreading misinformation and misleading emotional burden on its userbase.

According to the newspaper, Facebook was aware of the affliction it was exposing its users to, and the platform refrained from dealing with or fixing these issues out of worry it might influence user engagement.

In a way to embellish the Big Tech giant’s public image, Facebook executive Nick Clegg issued a counterstatement accusing the publication of intentionally mislabeling what the company was trying to accomplish during the pandemic.

To highlight the Big Tech mogul’s efforts, the platform’s security teams executed a plan leading to a purge of more than 150 stealthy influence operations. Facebook’s sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) played a major role in blocking 3 billion fake accounts in the first half of 2021 and has upgraded itself since then.

“Today, we embed teams focusing specifically on safety and security issues directly into product development teams, allowing us to address these issues during our product development process, not after it. Products also have to go through an Integrity Review process, similar to the Privacy Review process, so we can anticipate potential abuses and build in ways to mitigate them. Here are a few examples of how far we’ve come,” the post declared.

In parallel, the company proceeded to exonerate itself from The Facebook Files by revealing that it consciously removed content that represented a direct violation of its standards on hate speech, in addition to removing 15 times more of similar content from its platform and Instagram in 2017 alone.

This happened by implementing advanced technology that acts by learning from one language to apply the same tactics on all posts in various languages to augment its performance level. 

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New Discord feature will bring back YouTube music

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Discord

Weeks after Discord users witnessed the decease of their favorite music bots due to copyright violations filed by Google, the multimedia communication platform is now integrating YouTube music in a small number of Discord servers as of today.

The feature, which is called “Watch Today” provides Discord users with the ability to watch YouTube videos together. Almost 10 months ago, a similar feature popped up for Discord users as a test before disappearing and resurfacing this time as Watch Today.

The company has made it its priority to add this particular feature after witnessing a crackdown on music bots from YouTube. The popular video calling platform made it clear in their legal cease and desist letter to Groovy Bot, a popular music bot, that it will shut down the channel within days. Low and behold, YouTube did exactly that, followed by the most popular Discord music bot, Rythm.

Watch Together seems eerily similar to the music bots that got shutdown, except no illegalities will occur this time. The button to launch it appears next to the video and screen sharing options. “It’s designed specifically with YouTube in mind, allowing Discord server members to create a playlist of YouTube videos by searching or pasting in YouTube links. You can even toggle a remote button that lets other Discord server members share the ability to control playback,” as stated by The Verge.

However, Discord warned users that when utilizing the Watch Together feature, users “may see ads during YouTube videos.”

While that may not be the best news for Discord users looking to enjoy listening parties, popping ads will be an extra addition and potential revenue opportunity for YouTube.

The feature is currently strictly available for friends and family servers today, but the company has publicized its tentative aim for making it widely available to all users by the end of October.

For those who are interested in testing the feature for themselves, you can find it live in Discord’s Game Labs server.

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