Amazon is about to share your Internet connection with neighbors.
You have no control over what sort of data flows over Amazon’s new Sidewalk wireless network, which has been lying dormant in Echo smart speakers and Ring cameras … until now. Buried inside millions of Amazon Echo smart speakers and Ring security cameras. They have the ability to make a new kind of wireless network called Sidewalk that shares a slice of your home Internet connection with your neighbors’ devices, and on Tuesday, Amazon is switching Sidewalk on — for everyone.
I recommend you opt out of Sidewalk, too, until we get much better answers to these questions.
Sidewalk will blanket urban and suburban America with a low-bandwidth wireless network that can stretch half a mile and reach places and things that were once too hard or too expensive to connect. It could have many positive uses, such as making it easier to set up smart-home devices in places your WiFi doesn’t reach. (That can help your neighbors, and you.) But by participating, you also have no control over what sort of data you’re helping to transmit.
But Sidewalk is also a vast new wireless network entirely controlled by Amazon — and paid for by us.
How it works
Amazon is not the only big company working on getting more things connected to the Internet by piggybacking on us. But it’s doing it in a more aggressive way.
Your lowly Echo speaker (or other compatible device) is already connected to your home’s private Internet connection. When Amazon transforms it into a so-called Sidewalk Bridge, your device creates a new network of its own that’s not WiFi. Instead, it uses common Bluetooth to connect devices nearby, and another type of signal (using the 900 MHz spectrum) to connect to devices up to half a mile away.
This new Sidewalk network can’t carry as much data as WiFi, but it’s still impressive: Sidewalk signals from all the Amazon devices in your neighborhood overlap and join together to create what’s called a mesh network.
Sidewalk authorizes your Echo to share a portion of your home’s Internet bandwidth. It’s up to 500 megabytes per month — the rough equivalent of more than 150 cellphone photos. Amazon caps it at a rate of 80 Kbps, which the company says is a fraction of the bandwidth used to stream a typical high-definition video. Still, this traffic could count toward your Internet service provider’s data cap, if you’ve got one. The bill will be paid by you, not Amazon.
It’s not hard to imagine Amazon could use Sidewalk for its own business, such as to track packages or connect up its delivery trucks.
Is Sidewalk secure?
Amazon says it built Sidewalk with three layers of encryption, so that nobody can view the raw data passing through it — not Amazon, not the person who’s sharing their Internet.
Amazon has been vague about what types of data will be able to transfer across the network, aside from innocuous-sounding examples, such as receiving alerts, software updates and the location of lost items
Last but not least, Amazon should have made sharing our Internet connection something we opt in to, rather than just turning it on.
Amazon is activating Sidewalk on devices going back to at least the third-generation Echo speaker, from 2018, though it tells me they can only join the Bluetooth part of the network. (Amazon disclosed those devices had Bluetooth, but not that it might someday use them to build a network.) Echo devices capable of joining the long-range part include the latest Echo and Echo Show 10, both announced in 2020.
How to turn off Sidewalk
Turning Sidewalk off isn’t hard, but involves digging through some settings.
If you’ve got Echo devices, go to the Alexa app on a phone, then tap the More icon. Then tap on Settings, then tap on Account Settings, then tap on Amazon Sidewalk. In there, make sure “Enabled” is set to off. If you’ve got Ring devices, go to the Ring app on a phone, then tap the three bars at the top left corner to get to the menu. Then tap Control Center, then scroll down to Amazon Sidewalk.
If you turn off Sidewalk on one kind of device, it should cover you for all of them. (Some people have complained they switched off the Sidewalk setting, but it turned itself back on. Amazon says it fixed the problem.)
One more thing to keep in mind: There’s no halfway option. If you turn off Sidewalk, you won’t be sharing your network with your neighbors, but your devices also won’t be able to access its network.