On June 8, 2021, most Amazon smart home devices—as well as certain other connected gadgets—will become part of a nationwide network called Sidewalk. Here’s what you need to know, and how to opt out if you choose to.
What Is Sidewalk?
Announced in 2019, Sidewalk is a new wireless network developed by Amazon. It uses Bluetooth Low Energy combined with a part of the Wi-Fi radio spectrum in the 900MHz range to connect devices beyond their normal range.
You may already have heard of devices like smart home sensors that operate using Z-Wave or Zigbee technology. These wireless protocols also operate in the 900MHz range, as do old cordless phones, the walkie-talkie technology in some cellular phones, and amateur radio broadcasts. The advantage of using this low-frequency band of the radio spectrum is that the signals are extremely robust and can move around or penetrate obstacles with ease. This means they can travel a relatively long distance, unlike the newly deployed 5GHz spectrum, which needs a line-of-site between towers to broadcast its signal. Devices operating in the 900MHz spectrum also use much less energy than those working at higher frequencies, and the same is true of devices that use Bluetooth Low Energy technology.
So, by combining the two protocols along with other radio frequencies, Amazon says it can deploy a network that can link up all Sidewalk-enabled devices to create one giant network that can ensure devices stay operating more consistently and do so over longer distances.
“For example,” says the company, “with Sidewalk, you can continue to receive motion alerts from your security cameras even when your WiFi goes down. Or if your WiFi does not reach your smart lights at the edge of your driveway, Sidewalk can help them stay connected. In the future, Sidewalk will also support a range of experiences from using Sidewalk-enabled devices to help find pets or valuables, to smart security and lighting, to diagnostics for appliances and tools.”
The system will work through a series of “bridges,” which include most Echo devices and Ring Floodlight and Spotlight cameras. These bridges will act as hubs in the Sidewalk network and will communicate with low-power connected devices like Tile trackers and smart lights, which the company calls “Sidewalk Endpoints.”
Starting June 8, 2021, if you have one of these devices, you are agreeing to share 80Kbps of your bandwidth with the network—unless you opt out. According to Amazon, this 80Kbps amounts to about 1/40th the bandwidth to stream high-def video.
Is There a Catch?
You might be wondering if there’s a catch. The short answer is: sort of.
While Amazon is touting the great new range and boosted up-time that Sidewalk could potentially deliver, it’s important to understand that inherent in the technology is the linking up of any device that is Sidewalk enabled to all other similar devices. That means that if you have a smart doorbell from Amazon-owned company Ring, it could connect to your neighbor’s Echo Dot, which could then connect to someone’s Tile tracker as they walk by, and so on.
Unlike fears of Wi-Fi theft, however, in which someone nearby can hack into your router and stream Netflix using your signal, because the 900MHz band can’t deliver the speed of WiFi protocols like 5G, its use is pretty much limited to sensors, lights, trackers and things that don’t require much computing power, so the risk of a serious data breach is small.
Still, while Sidewalk won’t be transmitting serious quantities of data through its rather limited pipeline, it will still transmit some data. Amazon says that all data will be sent in triple-encrypted packets, and the company itself won’t be able to read the data.
Put in simpler terms, it would kind of like figuring out what’s inside an Amazon box on your neighbor’s porch without opening it. Still, Amazon (as with most of the tech giants) has not always had the best track record with keeping user data private. Let’s not forget that the company is still first and foremost a giant retailer who has a vested interest in knowing how people behave.
Yet the company does seem to be going the extra mile to keep Sidewalk user data safe and says that it will delete the encrypted packets of data every 24 hours.
“Information customers would deem sensitive, like the contents of a packet sent over the Sidewalk network, is not seen by Sidewalk; only the intended destinations (the endpoint and application server) possess the keys required to access this information,” the company writes in a whitepaper. “Sidewalk’s design also ensures that owners of Sidewalk gateways do not have access to the contents of the packet from endpoints (they do not own) that use their bandwidth. Similarly, endpoint owners do not have access to gateway information.”
Another potential concern is that, while the “donation” of your bandwidth to the Sidewalk network is capped at 500MB per month, if you are on a plan in which your data usage is very limited, you might want to opt out of the service (more on how to do that in a moment).
What Devices Are Sidewalk Enabled?
As of June 2021, the following devices can act as Amazon Sidewalk bridges:
- Ring Floodlight Cam (2019)
- Ring Spotlight Cam Wired (2019)
- Ring Spotlight Cam Mount (2019)
- Echo (3rd gen and newer)
- Echo Dot (3rd gen and newer)
- Echo Dot for Kids (3rd gen and newer)
- Echo Dot with Clock (3rd gen and newer)
- Echo Plus (all generations)
- Echo Show (2nd gen)
- Echo Show 5, 8, 10 (all generations)
- Echo Spot
- Echo Studio
- Echo Input
- Echo Flex
At the time of writing, the only sensing devices that can transmit over the Sidewalk network are Tile trackers, Level smart locks, and CareBands, which are part of a pilot program to test the technology out as a way to monitor individuals afflicted with dementia.
What If I Don’t Want to Participate?No problem. Amazon has made it fairly easy to opt out of the Sidewalk network through both the Alexa and Ring apps. Your choice is always reversible and, while there is a lot of hype about doing this before June 8, you can always stop or start participating at any time through the apps. Here’s how.
To turn the service off in the Alexa app, tap “More” in the lower right corner then Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk. When you are on the Sidewalk page, simply turn the toggle switch next to “Enabled” to the off position.
In the Ring app, first tap the three lines in the upper left of the screen. Then tap Control Center > Sidewalk and tap the Sidewalk toggle switch. Confirm that you want to disable the service and you’ll be all set.
Remember, very few devices actually operate as Sidewalk Endpoints as of its release. If you’re not completely comfortable becoming part of a huge networking hive right now, it might make sense to disable the service and then turn it back on as it evolves and offers a broader range of benefits.