Starting June 8, Amazon will automatically enable a feature on its family of hardware devices, including Echo speakers, Ring Video Doorbells, Ring Floodlight Cams, and Ring Spotlight Cams, that will share a small part of your Internet bandwidth with nearby neighbors — unless you choose to opt-out.
To that effect, the company intends to register all compatible devices that are operational in the U.S. into an ambitious location-tracking system called Sidewalk as it prepares to roll out the shared mesh network in the country.
Originally announced in September 2019, Sidewalk is part of Amazon's efforts to build a long-range wireless network that leverages a combination of Bluetooth and 900 MHz spectrum (FSK) to help Echo, Ring, Tile trackers, and other Sidewalk-enabled devices communicate over the internet without Wi-Fi.
Sidewalk is designed to extend the working range of low-bandwidth devices, and help devices stay connected even if they are outside the range of a user's home Wi-Fi network. It achieves this by pooling together a small sliver of internet bandwidth from the participating devices to create what's a shared network.
The mechanism that undergirds Sidewalk is conceptually analogous to how Apple leverages its huge installed base of Apple devices to help locate lost devices using its Find My network. But Sidewalk also extends beyond location tracking for virtually any kind of short-range two-way communication. Besides utilizing Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), Sidewalk also makes use of long-range wireless technology known as LoRa to help devices stay connected and continue to work over longer distances.
By flipping the switch on Sidewalk in the U.S. for all capable devices by default, the idea is to co-opt millions of smart home devices into the network and provide near-ubiquitous connectivity out of the range of a standard Wi-Fi network.
Sidewalk's Privacy and Security Protections
Elaborating on the protections baked into Sidewalk, the retail and entertainment behemoth said that packets traversing through the network are secured by three layers of encryption, and that it has safeguards in place to prevent unauthorized devices from joining by using Sidewalk credentials created during device registration process to authenticate their identities.
"Sidewalk protects customer privacy by limiting the amount and type of metadata that Amazon needs to receive from Sidewalk endpoints to manage the network," the company said in a white paper, while stressing that Sidewalk has been implemented with security protocols to prevent disclosure of private information and any commands that may be transmitted over the network.
Each transmission between an endpoint (say, leak sensors, door locks, or smart lights) and its respective application server is also identified by a unique transmission-ID (TX-ID) that changes every 15 minutes to prevent tracking devices and associating a device to a specific user.
That said, Sidewalk does need to know a third-party Sidewalk-enabled device's serial number to route the message to its respective application server. "The routing information that Amazon does receive for operating the network components of Sidewalk is automatically cleared every 24 hours," it added. Amazon also noted in the whitepaper that endpoints reported as lost or stolen will blocklisted.
While the security guarantees of the undertaking are without a doubt a step in the right direction, it's been established repeatedly that wireless technologies like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are prone to critical flaws that leave devices vulnerable to a variety of attacks, and a proprietary communication protocol like Sidewalk could be no exception. This is setting aside the possibility that the technology could be abused as surveillance tools to discreetly track a partner and encourage stalking.
How to Opt-Out and Turn Off Amazon Sidewalk?
A matter of more concern is that Sidewalk is opt-out rather than opt-in, meaning users will be automatically enrolled into Sidewalk unless they choose to explicitly turn it off.
In an FAQ on the Sidewalk page, Amazon says that should users opt to disable the feature, it's tantamount to "missing out on Sidewalk's connectivity and location related benefits," adding "You also will no longer contribute your internet bandwidth to support community extended coverage benefits such as locating pets and valuables with Sidewalk-enabled devices."
Owners of Echo and Ring devices can elect to opt-out of the device-to-device network either via Alex or Ring apps by following the below steps:
- Alexa app: Open More > select Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk, and toggle it on/off
- Ring app: Tap "three-lined" menu > Control Center > Sidewalk, and tap the slider button