Amazon is rolling out a new feature for its Echo and Ring product lines called Amazon Sidewalk. The basic idea is that it will create a wireless local network that allows all of these devices to connect to the internet from just about anywhere, even if your personal internet is down. Sounds cool, but the devil is in the details.
Amazon Sidewalk: The Good
Technologically speaking, Amazon Sidewalk is very neatly solving a real problem with today’s exploding Internet of Things world: smart devices get dumb pretty quickly if they can’t connect to the internet. Video doorbells, external security cameras, device locator sensors, and other cool toys are often outside the reach of your wifi router. And frankly, sometimes your router or your internet connection goes down.
Recent Amazon smarts devices, including Echo speakers and the Ring video doorbell, have a special radio built in that allows them to talk to other Amazon devices. This is what’s called a mesh network. Using this special low power network, devices that can’t get to wifi can relay messages to and from other nearby Amazon devices, until it finds a device with an internet connection. (There are already some smartphone apps and walkie talkies that have similar functionality.) This special messaging uses very little bandwidth and Amazon even made sure that it won’t affect your internet connection speed. Pretty cool, right?
Amazon Sidewalk: The Bad
Where this starts getting problematic is that the mesh network extends to all nearby Amazon devices with this capability – including ones that you don’t own. In other words, your Ring video doorbell may be talking to your neighbor’s Ring doorbell or their Echo speaker. Someone walking down your street with a Sidewalk-capable device may be sending and receiving messages through your home network via your Ring doorbell.
Now… Amazon has gone to great lengths to do this correctly, from a technical perspective. (You can read their security white paper on this here.) Not only are all the connections very well encrypted, but they also use a Tor-like onion routing system to hide the identity of these devices and prevent tracking. However… nothing is perfect and this is all brand new tech. So, you should just avoid turning this feature on, right?
Amazon Sidewalk: The Ugly
This is where things get ugly – and this is where I have a problem with it: Amazon Sidewalk is turned on by default. I honestly think the tech itself is pretty cool and I completely understand the value of using it for these types of applications. I even understand that for this stuff to really work well, they need most devices to participate – not unlike the COVID-19 tracing apps. And they did go the extra mile to protect your privacy and make the system secure.
But none of this, to me, justifies enabling this feature by default. Had you heard about this before you read this article? Would you have had any idea that this was going on with your Amazon devices? You may have gotten an email from Amazon… did you read it? Did you understand it? Bottom line: this program should have been opt-in by default, not opt-out.
Amazon did say that only existing Amazon devices will have this feature enabled by default and that if you purchase a new Sidewalk-capable device then it will then prompt you to decide. But that’s not good enough, in my opinion.
How to Disable Amazon Sidewalk
So in summary, I’m not necessarily saying this feature is bad or even poorly implemented. We don’t know that yet. But you should have had the choice whether to participate.
If you have an Amazon device that supports “Sidewalk Bridge”, you can disable the Amazon Sidewalk feature using your Amazon Alexa smartphone app. You may need to install this app if you haven’t already (iPhone, iPad, or Android).