A pandemic opens doors that normally remain closed. Two arch-competitors, Apple and Google, announced on Friday, April 10, 2020 that their experts are co-developing a system to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. They were going to build a Bluetooth network for iPhones and Android devices, which registers who is close to whom, and for how long. The identity and exact location of users remain secret.
Last year billions of phones got these proximity meter built-in. In the Netherlands, almost 5 million people downloaded the corresponding Corona detector. This massive contact tracing made a “positive but small contribution” to the fight against the virus, concluded the RIVM.
For the first time, the world became acquainted with Bluetooth as a means of detection on a large scale. The wireless technology turns the telephone owner into a walking search engine that continuously scans the environment and passes on the findings to the underlying network.
The same principle is the basis of the bluetooth trackers that help you find keys or your bag. Tracking networks like this have been around for some time – pioneers Tile and Chipolo have been working on them for more than seven years – but now tech giants Apple and Amazon are plunging into the search market. These companies, with market caps of $2,400 billion and $1,900 billion respectively, see location networks as the foundation for the internet of things – objects that are connected to the rest of the world.
Never lose anything again
Apple’s Find My (in Dutch: Search my…) is a search system that strings together a billion iPhones and iPads. Amazon’s Sidewalk network links tens of millions of “smart” speakers, cameras and Wi-Fi networks to form a digital safety net in and around the home.
Find My is on every iPhone, in the form of an app that shows where your Apple devices are and people who share their ‘live’ location with you. Find My has recently started working with objects, if they are equipped with a bluetooth beacon or Apple’s own bluetooth tracker, the AirTag.
As soon as iPhones come close to such a beacon (Bluetooth can reach up to a few tens of meters), the device receives a signal from the beacon with its location. This then reaches the owner via the network. The location of the object can be around the corner, on the neighbor’s doorstep, but also on the other side of the world. Handy if your luggage ends up on the wrong flight: you will never lose anything again.
The scope of Find My is large, compared to what the competition offers. Samsung has a similar network (SmartTags, only for Samsung phones) and has 70 million users. Chipolo, from Slovenia, has its own community of 5 million participants for its bluetooth trackers. Yet this start-up built a special version for Apple’s search system. A knee-jerk to Big Tech? “We are pleased that the major players are entering the location market,” the company said in an email. “That proves the raison d’être of our production category.”
Also read: Apple’s Search Engine of a Billion iPhones
Tile (26 million users) opposes the way Apple is bending the location market on the iPhone. Although the Find My network is ‘open’ to all Bluetooth trackers, they cannot use the same technical possibilities as Apple’s own AirTags. Unfair competition, says Tile. “Apple is promoting its own services and taking consumers hostage,” Tile’s attorney said during a US Senate hearing. That’s why Tile was looking connection at that other tech giant: Amazon.
The smart sidewalk
Amazon engaged the Sidewalk network in early June, a project it has been working on for several years. Sidewalk is a wireless link between nearby Amazon devices. The grid should connect a street full of smart houses into one smart neighbourhood.
At the moment Amazon Sidewalk only works in the United States. Amazon has a lot of scope there, both indoors (with Echo speakers listening to digital assistant Alexa) and outdoors, in the form of filming doorbells and surveillance cameras.
Sidewalk links all those devices together, using a combination of Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and a 900 MHz radio network that transmits data over greater distances. Each participant also makes part of their internet connection available via Sidewalk. For example, according to Amazon, you could piggyback on the Wi-Fi network of your neighbors in places where your own connection is insufficient. Like Find My, Sidewalk is “open” to other manufacturers, with Tile’s Bluetooth trackers as its first third-party product.
Stalkers and surveillance
Find My and Sidewalk are well encrypted and shielded from hackers, the tech companies promise. The greatest risk of abuse is in another corner: stalking and privacy violation. A tracker is the size of a coin and you simply hide it in a car or bag to keep an eye on people.
Any system to track your dog can also be used to stalk people
Privacy organization EFF
Apple has tweaked its AirTags a bit to avoid unwanted tracking. As soon as the AirTag has a couple of hours away from its owner, the thing will beep softly. Unsolicited tracking also lurks at Sidewalk, the American warns privacy organization EFF: “Any system that allows you to track your dog, you can also use to stalk people.”
Amazon goes one step further with surveillance. Ring brand doorbells (acquired by Amazon in 2018) are linked together via the Neigbors app. Neighbors warn each other about suspicious activities. American examples show that the digital neighborhood watch is inclined prejudices about external characteristics.
The real police also use Ring. Two thousand US police forces can view video doorbells. Recently, this is no longer possible unsolicited – users must first agree — but it still doesn’t require an official warrant, privacy experts warn.
fear of missing
We need social media networks fear of missing out to thank: the fear of missing out on all the fun others experience. Location networks capitalize on the fear of missingfear of losing precious things or loved ones. Checking where something or someone is, suggests that you have more control over your life. That is why helicopter parents like to keep an eye on their children via GPS. And vice versa, helicopter children want to know the location of their parents when they are elderly and require some ‘supervision’.
Few things should be as private as your location, the option to share it with the outside world is everywhere. In addition to Find My Friends, Google Maps, Android Family Link, there are networks such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Snap and a whole host of apps with which you can ‘check in’ or follow others.
What one person experiences as a remote guardian angel, is meddling or espionage for another. American podcaster Kristen Louelle draws a clear line: “I only share my location with my best friend. Not because I’m a big liar, but I want the freedom to make up an excuse if a conversation doesn’t suit me. ‘Sorry, I’m still at work’, for example.”
Even without excuses, location sharing creates problems that can shake relationships. For example, if you – true event – walk from the office to the metro station and your partner wonders: “Say, what are you doing in the Red Light District?”
Can it also work?
Back to contact tracing, the bluetooth network that Apple and Google built for the corona apps. Everyone could see the underlying technology, and a long public discussion about the privacy risks preceded it. However, users of the new location networks are expected to make such privacy considerations themselves. When does the network become intrusive or insecure? How often do you lose your keys or bag at all? Is it really necessary to set up your own surveillance state for that? Aren’t there better ways to work with your neighbors?
It is not easy to withdraw from the new networks. Apple’s Find My is ‘on’ as soon as you want your phone to be found. If you don’t want to help find other people’s devices, you can’t look up your own phone if it’s stolen.
Amazon Sidewalk is enabled unsolicited. You should in the settings dive to unpair your Echo device.
Apple and Google made an important promise in 2020: they will pull the plug on their joint contact tracingsystem once the pandemic is under control. The option seems unthinkable for Apple Find My and Amazon Sidewalk. The doors are open, and they won’t close.