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How Amazon Sidewalk Works—and Why You May Want to Turn It Off


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How Amazon Sidewalk Works—and Why You May Want to Turn It Off

The premise is convenient. But the e-commerce giant's privacy track record isn't exactly inspiring.
amazon echo devices
Photograph: Daniel Berman/Bloomberg/Getty Images
 

If you have Amazon devices as part of your smart home, there's a new service on the block you should be aware of—and as usual, there are both potential benefits and potential privacy implications to think about as you consider whether you want to be a part of it.

 

The technology in question is Amazon Sidewalk, which Amazon itself bills as "a new way to stay connected." Simply put, it uses Amazon smart-home gear to create a series of mini mesh networks, meaning your devices can stay connected further away from your router, and even stay online when your Wi-Fi goes down.

 

This is made possible through Bluetooth and unused slices of the wireless spectrum, with Ring cameras and Echo speakers acting as the main bridges (actually called Sidewalk Bridges) to keep everything hooked up. For something to work with the network, it's going to need to be compatible with the Sidewalk standard.

 

Even if your Ring camera is down at the end of the garden, out of reach of your main router, Sidewalk might be able to reach it through a device that's closer. The network can't carry much data at once, but these smart home gadgets don't necessarily need much bandwidth to stay online.

 

The potential range of the network is decent—up to half a mile depending on the setup—and Sidewalk is free for Amazon customers to use once they've bought the hardware. As an added bonus, it'll speed up the process of adding new Amazon devices to your smart home, as your existing hardware will be able to lend a hand with Wi-Fi connections and so on.

Amazon Sidewalk Connected convenience at your front door.

Amazon Sidewalk has started rolling out in the US.

Courtesy of Amazon

So far so tempting, but the more controversial part of Amazon Sidewalk is the way it shares some of your internet bandwidth with your neighbors (and gets some back in return), creating a much wider network of devices that can operate independently. If your internet goes down, your Ring camera can connect to the internet next door to keep sending you alerts, assuming both of you are set up with Sidewalk.

 

Likewise, if your neighbor's internet goes down, their smart devices can temporarily connect to your router and the Sidewalk network you've created. If Amazon has its way, entire blocks will become Sidewalk networks, improving reliability and stability for all the smart devices contained inside them.

 

Tile trackers are also Sidewalk compatible, which means that they can report their location when they're in range of any of these bespoke networks, not just your own—potentially very useful if your dog or your laptop goes missing outside of your own Wi-Fi network, but has a Tile tracker attached and can be located by one of the Sidewalk networks you're connected to.

 

Amazon says that bandwidth usage by each Sidewalk network is capped at 80Kbps, or around 1/40th of the bandwidth used to stream a high definition video—the network won't take up any more of your internet connection than that. What's more, Amazon promises never to use more than 500MB of data in a month, which is the same as streaming about 10 minutes of high definition data.

 

"Customer privacy and security is foundational to Amazon Sidewalk," writes Amazon in a blog post about the service. "The Sidewalk network uses three layers of encryption to keep data shared over the network safe, and the same strong encryption standards are required for all applications and devices that use the network."

Amazon sidewalk's mesh network of smart home devices.

Amazon wants to hook your smart home up with others.

Courtesy of Amazon

Amazon has even published a white paper on the privacy and security surrounding Sidewalk, perhaps to head off any uneasiness about sharing even a small sliver of your Wi-Fi with the people living around you. The system will "minimize data tied to customers" across Sidewalk, with neither Amazon nor your neighbors able to snoop on what's happening on your network or the devices you've got.

 

The white paper points out the steps that Amazon has taken to make this as private and secure as possible, including a variety of cryptographic algorithms and those three levels of encryption: It shouldn't be possible for other people to spy on your network or suddenly gain access to your smart thermostat. Everything should happen seamlessly behind the scenes, in theory.

 

All that said, it really comes down to how much you trust Amazon—the company that seems keen to collect as much data as possible about you, shares Ring camera information with law enforcement agencies, and which hasn't always protected sensitive user data quite as robustly as it might have done. The company has also said it might share Sidewalk data with third-party developers further down the line, and you know where that kind of data sharing tends to lead.

 

If you end up deciding that Amazon Sidewalk isn't for you, you need to take action: It's on by default, once the software update has hit your devices (it's also on by default for users setting up an Amazon-powered smart home for the first time.) If you want to turn it off, you need to open up the Alexa app on your phone, and go to More, Settings, Account Settings, and Amazon Sidewalk.

 

 

How Amazon Sidewalk Works—and Why You May Want to Turn It Off

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