Where the Sidewalk begins

In September of last year, not long after I had shared my concerns that new police cameras could be used with facial recognition software, mayor Drew Dilkens told AM800 that he was in talks with Amazon to make Windsor the first city in Canada to have their police department connect to their Neighbors App which allows residents to readily share footage of their Ring security camera, without a warrant.

In response to this threat, I – along with with three fellow University of Windsor colleagues, Natalie Delia Deckard (Department of Sociology, Anthropology & Criminology), Bonnie Stewart (Faculty of Education) and Kristen Thomasen (Law) – organized an event. The evening of talks was entitled “Safer Communities in a ‘Smart Tech’ World” and it was held on January 22nd, 2020 at The Performance Hall at the University of Windsor’s School of Creative Arts. Chris Gilliard was our keynote speaker, Bonnie was our host who introduced the topic to our audience, Kristen spoke to some of the legal context, and I spoke about concerns using a network technology lens.

My short presentation is below:

Hello. My name is Mita Williams and I am the Scholarly Communications Librarian at the Leddy Library of the University of Windsor. I have a long standing interest in how we can use technology to make our cities better – and what I mean by better, is more equitable, more sustainable, and more joyful.  Please subscribe to my newsletter.

For my short talk, I’m not going to talk about the direct threats to our neighbourhood safety and our feelings of community from the influence of Amazon’s Ring.

Instead, I am going to bring your attention to a designed secondary effect of consumers buying into Amazon Ring’s devices that could come into play even if the Windsor Police Service chooses not to endorse the service.  I would like to introduce you to Amazon Sidewalk.

But before I do so, I would like to make it clear that Amazon’s Sidewalk project is not related to Sidewalk Toronto, which is a proposal Sidewalk Labs, which is itself is from a subsidiary of Google called Alphabet.  Sidewalk Toronto is a proposal to turn Quayside – a waterfront neighbourhood in Toronto – into an integrated ‘smart city’ filled with sensors and new forms of public utilities created and maintained by private companies.

Why are both projects called Sidewalk?  I believe it’s because while the city street itself is understood as shared public space, the sidewalk is a thread of public space that crosses private property.  But that thread of public space is tenuous. In Windsor, almost half of our streets don’t have sidewalks on both sides of the street. On arterial and collector streets, there are 78 kilometres with no sidewalks at all.

Amazon Sidewalk is something that is not simple to describe. It was announced late last year and it appears to be in some form of beta.

You see, Ring Doorbells weren’t designed to just be doorbells that share videos to your neighbours, Amazon, and the Police. Ring Doorbells have been designed to share low bandwidth “wifi” (called a mesh network) so that each Ring Doorbell can provide coverage of about 500 meters away. It only took 700 Ring Doorbells to provide coverage of most of the Los Angeles basin.  In doing so, Amazon created a private network that will allow future “Internet of Things” projects like a ‘smart dog tag’ that will tell you exactly where your cat is in your neighbourhood. But that’s the thing. Surveillance sounds awesome when you thinking in the context of your pet. It’s an entirely other thing when you learn that Amazon will be able to track you whether you buy their products or not.

I want to stress that there is nothing inevitable about Amazon Sidewalk. It will only be able to take root where there are willing consumers who have internet and if there is a regulatory space for the service to exist. Our next speaker, Kristen Thomason will address this legal space.

Before I give her the microphone, I would like to leave you with a reminder that there are many communities without internet. Canada’s North and many rural spaces don’t have affordable Internet. In 2017, 40% of Detroit’s population had no access to the internet at all.

To address this lack, is the Detroit Community Technology Project which seeks provide access to residents without through the Equitable Internet Initiative. This coalition of partners coordinate the Digital Stewards Training Program, which trains community members to build and maintain their own wireless communications infrastructure.

Instead of building a “smart city” perhaps we should follow the example of the Detroit’s Community Technology Project and build a “more equitable” “more just” and “more generous city, instead.

Related Reading on Amazon Sidewalk

What is Amazon Sidewalk, which devices use it, and how does it work?, Pocket-lint, Maggie Tillman · 26 September 2019

Amazon Sidewalk extends your network range, but security is already in question, CNET, Alison DeNisco Rayome, September 26, 2019

Introducing Amazon Sidewalk: Get connected convenience beyond your front door. By Day One Staff (Amazon.com) on September 27, 2019

Amazon may soon be able to track your phone’s location even if you don’t use any of its products or services, Business Insider, Aaron Holmes Sep 29, 2019

A New Wireless Standard: What Is Amazon Sidewalk?, How-to-Geek, Josh Hendrickson, October 10, 2019