The great fear of tech implementation always harkens back to data mining and exposure. So, imagine my surprise when I saw that, on June 8th, Amazon began automatically enabling WiFi sharing on connected hardware. Through a unique wireless network called Sidewalk, Echo speakers, Ring cameras (including video doorbells), Tile Trackers, and other connected devices now automatically share your WiFi with neighbors.
So, what exactly is Sidewalk? How does Amazon justify it, and what are its implications for your data? Let’s take a look.
Amazon Sidewalk Was Quietly Rolled Out in 2017
Amazon began creating Sidewalk-enabled devices in 2017. Eerily enough, however, the feature wasn’t announced to the public until 2019. Sidewalk was created so that devices can communicate over the internet while using minimal to no WiFi. It’s a hidden network, meaning you can’t find it in the list of available networks on a computer or smartphone.
Sidewalk will theoretically allow users to maintain their internet connection when they travel out of the range of traditional WiFi routers and help devices stay connected even if the internet goes down. It does this by tapping into the 900MHz band of the radio spectrum.
What’s not clear is why home cameras and speakers would need this feature. One can only guess that it’s a matter of time before Amazon begins implementing Sidewalk on remote technology beyond just Tile Trackers, such as fitness devices and other WiFi-enabled outdoor accessories.
What it Means for Your WiFi and Data
Sidewalk essentially gives users access to a small amount of internet when they are not traditionally connected via other Sidewalk users’ connected devices. It does this through connected Sidewalk devices (Echo speakers, Ring cameras, Tile Trackers, etc.), also called “Sidewalk Bridges.” The more people in a neighborhood use Sidewalk, the stronger the signal becomes.
The maximum bandwidth of a Sidewalk Bridge is 80Kbps or around 1/40th of the bandwidth used to stream a high-definition video. If you share your Bridge (or enabled device’s) connection with Sidewalk, the feature shares up to 500MB of your data a month. That’s about ten minutes of high-definition video streaming – not enough to alter your internet speed.
Amazon says that the security risks are minimal. The company has added three layers of encryption to protect consumer data and requires minimal metadata to broadcast the network. Each unique transmission between a Sidewalk Bridge and endpoint changes every 15 minutes to prevent device tracking. The company has also implemented numerous security protocols to prevent hackers from accessing data.
Data Security Qualms
Sidewalk is Amazon’s attempt to create a connected city on its own network. But Amazon’s trustworthiness with consumer data is debatable. The company has already been caught giving Ring security data to police without consumer consent. Many of the issues people have with Amazon Sidewalk harken back to trust issues with Amazon itself. Christen Costa, CEO of Gadget Review, is one of those skeptics:
“Articles run frequently about the kind of information the Echo is harvesting from users. Sidewalk also feels like it will be more connected and pervasive.”
The Sidewalk network location tracking capability is rubbing some users the wrong way, especially considering Amazon’s history of misusing customer data. Even the way that Amazon rolled out the Sidewalk network—without customer awareness or consent—raises ethical issues for potential users.
Not Into It? Here’s How to Turn Off Amazon Sidewalk
No matter how many safety claims Amazon makes about the new network, sharing your internet connection with strangers is not for everyone. The reality is that the biggest threat that Sidewalk presents to consumers is data privacy issues with Amazon itself.
Want to opt-out? To disable Amazon Sidewalk, you’ll need to download the app for your connected device.
• Echo Devices
For Echo devices, you’ll need to use the Amazon Alexa app. You’ll go to “Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk > Disabled.” Double-check that you’ve successfully disabled Amazon Sidewalk by logging back into your Alexa Settings.
• Ring Devices
For Ring devices, you’ll use the Ring app: “Control Center > Amazon Sidewalk > Disabled > Confirm.”
• Tile Devices
Tile devices are a little different since Tile automatically turned off the “community finding” tool that linked it to the Sidewalk network when it was enabled. Still, you need to remove your Tile device from the Alexa network entirely if you don’t want it to share location data with other Sidewalk network users.
What Do You Think?
In closing, we want to hear your take on Amazon’s new Sidewalk feature. Is it a cool stepping stone on our pathway to a totally connected world; or another creepy, covert way for Amazon to compromise consumer data? Join the discussion in the comments section below!