In late 2019, at a fall hardware event, Amazon unveiled Sidewalk – a "new way to stay connected", according to the company itself.
With Amazon Sidewalk, customers who own smart lights, pet trackers, motion detectors and other internet-enabled devices will be able to keep them connected to the net even if they're out of range of the household router.
Now that it's 2021, Sidewalk is readily available to customers in the US with compatible devices – and this includes Echo speakers and Ring cameras.
However, this impressive functionality raises an old question – how much trust should we place in Amazon? Do the benefits of Sidewalk's range-boosting network outweigh the privacy concerns, or the slew of security breaches and leaks that have beset the company in recent years?
Ultimately, Sidewalk creates a number of small mesh networks to extend the range of compatible devices. It also uses a bit of your home Wi-Fi to relay 900 MHz and low-energy Bluetooth signals to the gadgets around your home. So, if you have smart lights or a camera tucked away at the end of the garden, Sidewalk makes it possible to keep these devices functioning like any other.
It's also possible to pair a Tile tracker with Sidewalk, and extend the range of the device so long as you're within half a mile of another! This comes in handy if anything goes missing beyond the reach of your usual Wi-Fi signal.
For those interested in Sidewalk, there's no need to rush out and purchase any shiny new hardware – it can simply be enabled on existing devices. Additionally, Sidewalk is free for all users, provided that they have the applicable hardware.
However, these factors have nothing to do with why Sidewalk has been raising eyebrows for a while, now. Sidewalk actually shares a small part of your internet bandwidth with your neighbors – and vice versa.
"Customers with a Sidewalk Bridge can contribute a small portion of their internet bandwidth, which is pooled together to create a shared network that benefits all Sidewalk-enabled devices in a community" says Amazon on its Sidewalk page.
In practical terms, this means that if your internet drops or is often unreliable, you'll still be able to use your Ring camera and smart lights without interruptions. If they're set up with Sidewalk, they'll simply borrow the bandwidth they need from a neighbor in order to keep sending alerts – and the reverse is true, too. Sidewalk is programmed to lend a helping hand to any nearby devices that need it.
It's easy to see how Sidewalk might become popular, and as such, we could see entire networks and neighborhoods of Sidewalk-enabled devices, all borrowing and lending from one another. In fact, the more people who use Sidewalk, the stronger that network becomes.
Sharing data of any kind is a tricky thing in the digital world, and Sidewalk has drawn due concern, with skeptics questioning how Amazon plans to keep user data safe. Amazon authored a white paper to address the issue directly.
It claims that the amount of bandwidth used by Sidewalk-enabled devices is pretty minimal. Each network has a maximum bandwidth of 80 Kbps – that's about 1/40th of the bandwidth needed to stream in HD! Data allowance is also capped at 500 MB per month which, again, works out about the same as watching 10 minutes of high definition video.
Elsewhere in the white paper, Amazon insists that it makes use of a number of cryptographic algorithms, one-way hashing keys, rotating device IDs, and three levels of encryption. All these measures work to keep data private and protected from snooping – the next-door neighbor won't be able to take control of the smart lights or speakers, and Amazon itself will be unable to collect or read user data. As a final cherry on top, Amazon also asserts that it deletes the information that routes data packets every 24 hours.
"Preserving customer privacy and security is foundational to how we've built Amazon Sidewalk. Sidewalk is designed with multiple layers of privacy and security to secure data traveling on the network and to keep customers safe and in control". Amazon said in its white paper.
So, prospective users have a conundrum to consider.
Is it worth extending the range of the household Smart devices if it means sharing data with Amazon's servers? Amazon has already admitted that it may choose to share data with third-parties in the future! Of course, Sidewalk's functionality can't be understated, but there are more than 100m Alexa-enabled devices in homes across the world. That's an awful lot of cameras and microphones, and potentially a lot of neighborhood networks that Amazon would have access to.
It'd be remiss of us not to remind you of the vulnerabilities that were detected in Alexa devices in late 2020. Hackers were able to check out user information and conversations, as well as delete apps, all without the owners knowing – and all it took was one malicious, hand-crafted link. Amazon has patched the flaw since then, but the company also had to address a leak caused by an employee. Customer details, like email addresses, were disclosed to a third-party in 2020.
Customer details were leaked in 2019, too, when a data breach was caused by a "technical issue". This issue resulted in customer names and addresses being posted to the site. And in 2017, Amazon came under fire for not stating that humans can potentially listen to the recordings collected by Echo devices.
As was uncovered by a Bloomberg investigation, Amazon uses its staff and contractors to listen to voice-activated requests to improve the service. Of course, the average user might not know that this is happening – and might not believe you if you told them.
Most insidious of all, perhaps, is Ring's relationship with the authorities. This is no secret, and Amazon makes a habit of passing user data on to the police – and isn't that troubling? Amazon has put itself in a position where it can facilitate how the police and regular citizens communicate! But Amazon has no qualms about this invasive level or surveillance, and is actually coaching police on how to acquire security camera footage from its customers. Amazon has also been denounced by civil rights organizations for cutting secret deals with police departments.
So, it might be a good idea to pass on Amazon Sidewalk – the company's checkered history of privacy scandals and leaks, as well as its contribution to a growing surveillance state, should be enough to convince you to be wary.
And if you do decide you'd rather have no part in Sidewalk, you'll need to opt-out manually. Luckily, it's pretty easy to do so:
- Open the Alexa app
- Head into More, then Settings, Account Settings, and finally Amazon Sidewalk
- Then, toggle the switch