On June 8, Amazon will automatically activate a network sharing feature for most of the devices it sells. Here’s why you may not want it, and how to opt out of Amazon Sidewalk. Wouldn’t it be great if your new devices automatically connected to your network and were ready to go in seconds, no fiddling with logins or security codes? And they worked for an entire neighborhood or community?
That’s the potential of Amazon Sidewalk, a feature Amazon will activate by default on June 8 in the US on a number of its devices. On that day, most Amazon Echo smart speakers and smart displays made after 2018, plus a few Ring by Amazon smart doorbells and cameras, will become a Sidewalk Bridge (or Gateway). Specifically, the following devices are compatible:
–> 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 (all models and generations)
–> Echo Spot
–> Echo Studio
–> Echo Input
–> Echo Flex
What Is an Amazon Sidewalk Bridge?
A Sidewalk Bridge will fill in the gaps between your home network’s internet connection and devices using low-power wireless connections, like Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and sections of the 900MHz radio spectrum used for Long Range (LoRa). It’s similar to what you can get with some low-power smart home network protocols like Zigbee and Z-Wave, but those require you to buy a smart home hub (in fact, some Echo devices act as Z-Wave hubs).
But Sidewalk is simply…there. A low-energy network that surrounds your residence. The potential range of the radio spectrum it uses is half a mile—more with some setups and locations. The 900MHz LoRa, however, is only found in the newer, sphere-shaped Amazon Echoes, plus the latest Echo Show 10, and the Ring Spotlight and Ring Floodlight, according to CNET. Amazon hasn’t (yet) built Sidewalk into its Eero mesh devices.
When the Sidewalk Bridges(s) in your house are active, wireless signals that reach outside your home to the sidewalk and beyond will allow any passing Sidewalk-enabled device (called a Sidewalk Endpoint) to instantly connect. Sidewalk will also help set up new Amazon products on your home Wi-Fi.
You’re not going to use Amazon Sidewalk to sidle up to the neighbor’s house, access their Wi-Fi on your laptop, and use their ISP bandwidth to watch Netflix. But your Echo devices and your neighbors can co-mingle, forming a low-energy, long-range mesh network over the whole area. That means if you have a network outage at your location alone, a smart device in your house (say your Ring doorbell) may still function—but not enough to send a video stream. It doesn’t have the bandwidth for that. Amazon put a 500MB-per-month data cap on Sidewalk, while throughput on a bridge to Amazon’s servers maxes out at 80Kbps.
But what the low-power connection is good for is devices like Tile trackers. Tile, in fact, is one of the very few products that are already Sidewalk-enabled. (Others include CareBand and Level smart locks.) It may even give the venerable tracker device company a leg up in the face of competition from Apple AirTags. In fact, the way Amazon Sidewalk works with Tile is similar to how Apple set up AirTags to work with just about any iOS device they encounter. Expect to see many more products signing on to this quick and easy method of getting low-power devices online.
Sounds like nirvana for future devices that need a quick internet check occasionally as you’re out and about—your smartwatch, your trackers, but also your home-based devices like smart locks, lights, and sensors. But you may want to opt out anyway.
What Are the Downsides of Amazon Sidewalk?
First off, this is Sidewalk 1.0 and new products are known to have bugs. Wireless networks have also been compromised before, and they’ll be compromised again. (Amazon has a whitepaper on Sidewalk security, but next year’s Black Hat conference could blow that to smithereens.)
There’s also the fact that, despite data caps, Sidewalk opens your network up to traffic you don’t necessarily authorize or want. A 500MB data cap is great, but if you’ve got a metered connection with your ISP, that’s 500MB you lose if the Ring doorbell three houses up the street uses it first. Amazon makes a big deal about how Sidewalk operates with “no charge to customers,” but even if the cost may be a little less tangible, it’s still potentially there.
Finally, there’s the fact that this is from Amazon. (We’d say the same about any of the fearsome tech five: Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft). Consider how much you trust the giant mega-corps with your data and act accordingly. Amazon says the delivery system of Sidewalk is exactly that—for delivery only, with Sidewalk Gateways and servers never even seeing the data involved, only the packets that prove they deserve the transport. It only authenticates and sends, it doesn’t read it.
But data like this is about more than content. Amazon, like any good data-miner, will know who’s walking by the house, knocking on the door, or unlocking a door if they happen to use or just have a Sidewalk device on their person. Talk about targeted advertising opportunities.
Plus, there is still plenty of hullabaloo about the privacy surrounding Amazon and its Alexa assistant. Amazon itself owns a controversial facial-recognition platform that it only stopped selling to police last year. Amazon-owned Ring has also partnered with at least 405 police agencies across the US so officials can more easily access video footage captured by the doorbell cameras.
How to Opt Out of Sidewalk
Shutting off Sidewalk is simple. In the Alexa mobile app on your smartphone or tablet, go to More > Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk. (You can’t get to it on the desktop.) Click the toggle so it reads as “Disabled.” Now you won’t have to worry about Sidewalk at all. Your networked items will work as they always have. (If you don’t see the Sidewalk option, your Amazon device likely isn’t compatible with Sidewalk.)
You may also see a setting for Community Finding, which offers nearby devices a more vague approximation of your location so you can help trackers like Tile do their jobs. This one is actually off by default and you can disable Sidewalk while enabling Community Finding.