A lot of people ended up buying a new Amazon device during Prime Day 2021, and many of those devices will work as part of Amazon Sidewalk. It's that thing you keep hearing about but is never really explained well, and the internet collectively says you should just opt out because Amazon is shady or will do something evil with it.
I'm not here to change your mind. It would help if you decided how much of anything you want to share with any tech company, including Amazon. But I do want to take a few minutes and lay out exactly what Amazon Sidewalk is, what it can do today, and discuss both the good and bad of it all.
How to opt-out
I'll start here because that's what many people really want to know about, and even if you only read this much of the article, you should at least get some benefit from it. But I think automatically deciding to opt-out without knowing why is the wrong decision every time, including this time.
You need to know that you have been opted-in automatically if you have a device that is part of the Amazon Sidewalk initiative. If you have an Amazon Echo device that was updated to be part of the Sidewalk network (see the full list of devices here), you were also opted-in without consent.
That's not good, but it is expected. Amazon needs as many people as possible to be part of Sidewalk if it is ever going to be effective. Amazon also knows that most people will not care enough to opt-in to a service that few people understand.
I'd much rather see Amazon educate people about Sidewalk during the onboarding of any device setup, then let the user decide instead of just pushing it on everyone, but it is what it is. You will also need to opt-out of Sidewalk for your Ring branded devices separately.
- To opt-out of Amazon Sidewalk on your Echo and Alexa devices, see this article.
- To opt-out of Amazon Sidewalk on your Ring devices, see this article.
The dark side of Amazon Sidewalk
You've probably seen how articles across the internet call Amazon Sidewalk an invasion of your privacy or a security nightmare. While you shouldn't discount those articles out of hand, you should know why people feel that way, And to do that, you need to know exactly what Sidewalk is.
Amazon Sidewalk is a duplication of an existing extended-range network protocol that uses an unlicensed radio spectrum and has a maximum bandwidth of 80Kbps. It works by having certain, mostly stationary, Amazon devices like an Echo Plus or a Ring Floodlight Cam act as bridges that devices like Tile trackers or CareBands designed for dementia patients can connect with. The Bridges then connect to Amazon's Sidewalk Services platform to complete what is essentially a giant mesh network.
The Amazon Sidewalk network can communicate between bridge and device on its own. Still, devices that act as a Sidewalk bridge use your existing internet connection to communicate with Amazon and/or each other. If you spotted two big warning flags here, you aren't alone.
Amazon essentially co-opted your internet connection without asking for permission and is sending data using it that can cost you money. Not a lot of money, as each bridge device is capped at sending no more than 500MB per month, but it is still data that you pay for, and one of the richest tech companies in the world is trying to use it for free. That's never a good look, and someone at Amazon should have anticipated the backlash that a company worth trillions trying to get "free data" would cause.
For what it's worth, I've been monitoring my 2018 Echo Plus, and during the first 22 days of June 2021, it sent about 250Mb more data to Amazon than it did in the previous month without Sidewalk enabled. I'm not going to get flustered over 250Mb of data, but I also can't shake the fact that Amazon could have afforded some reward, like lowering my yearly Prime bill by $5, to cover the costs.
The bigger issue is one of trust. Amazon really never beta-tested Sidewalk and instead was confident enough in its own security measures just to put it out there for the whole United States to test. And Amazon is a huge offender when it comes to sucking all of your personal data every single time it gets a chance. Amazon is right up there with Google and Facebook when it comes to tracking everything you do when you're in front of a device with a screen.
Amazon does use some great privacy-focused features like strong encryption and is designed so that only approved devices can be part of the Sidewalk network. But there is still the potential for your data to be routed through my Sidewalk bridge device, and history tells us that nothing is foolproof.
There is no way that Amazon didn't have teams to try all the "simple" tricks to make a data stream think it was routed to the correct device when it really wasn't. And Amazon certainly did test out its layered encryption methods to ensure that random bits of data or even metadata can't leak out. But people who want to try and break into something will eventually find a way, so hopefully, Amazon presents a strong bug-bounty program and quickly addresses any potential flaws.
Then there is the fact that some people just don't trust Amazon. Amazon is the company that uses AI-powered cameras to make sure warehouse workers don't take too long to pee. Amazon is the company that is happy to provide Ring camera data to local police. Amazon does some really shady things.
Stacey Higginbotham, you might know her as Stacey on IoT, puts this sort of trust in a really unique perspective that I wholeheartedly agree with:
You trusted Amazon enough to buy an Echo Dot, so you could have Alexa do your bidding. It's a little silly to opt-out just because you do not trust the company unless you plan to toss that Echo Dot out onto the actual sidewalk on trash day.
The good side of Sidewalk
Yes, Sidewalk has a lot of positives once you stop obsessing over the negatives. It's a huge 900Mhz network that was designed to make specific devices function better (opens in new tab) and provide a way to bring even more functionality to them. This shouldn't be overlooked, but even what Sidewalk can do today is pretty darn cool.
I'm going to use Tile Bluetooth trackers as an example because I spent some time setting them up to work with Sidewalk, but other things like your eero mesh router, your Level smart locks, and even a wearable designed to keep dementia patients from getting lost benefit from Sidewalk's connectivity.
Back to Tile. Tile works by establishing a Bluetooth connection to your phone and when you're in range, you can tap a button in the app and a Tile tracker will play a cheerfully annoying jingle until you find it. But Tile also uses the Tile app (opens in new tab) on your phone to look for other Tile trackers and report their location back to a server. If you leave your keys on a bench at the park and go home, people with the Tile app on their phones which are also in range, can help the Tile app on your phone tell you where your keys are.
Extend that from "other people who have the tile app installed" to "every Sidewalk-enabled Amazon device within one mile," and you start to see the big picture. This is what Apple is doing with its FindMy network — leveraging a huge install base (meaning every iPhone) as a network to track things that are lost.
There are many more homes or businesses with an Amazon Echo or Ring camera than people with the Tile app. Your chance of finding your lost keys is much greater because of this. And I tested this using the most sterile environment I can imagine — nobody else in range of my house has a Sidewalk-enabled Amazon device. I know this because I literally know my two neighbors. I can place a tile tracker well out of the Bluetooth range of my phone and still ask Alexa to "Find Jerry's keys," and a pretty precise location will be given. It works as advertised.
Does it work better than the Tile app does? Yes, because the range in my case is tripled, someone who lives in a more urban environment will likely see more Sidewalk-enabled devices and more people using the Tile app, so there is a much better chance of finding your lost keys.
Make no mistake, this is a simple example, but it does show how powerful Sidewalk is and what good can come of it. Replace my keys with your beloved pet, or someone's confused family member. Just the power of finding Sidewalk devices makes Sidewalk a powerful tool, but it also does more because it's basically an always-on connection as long as Sidewalk bridge devices are powered up.
Level makes some pretty good smart locks. You want those to have a robust connection to 1) keep the wrong people out and 2) make sure you can get in. Since Level locks are part of Amazon Sidewalk, they can do that even if the Wi-Fi network in your house is on the fritz.
Amazon bought eero a while back, so it makes one of the best mesh Wi-Fi routers you can buy. With your eero router as a Sidewalk device, you're less dependent on your own internet connection when problems arise. In the future, things like Wi-FI calling or IP phones may be able to make emergency calls when your own internet connection is out.
Amazon Sidewalk is not a substitute for your internet connection. In fact, it relies on a lot of people having internet connections to work. But it is a new data distribution model that can bring along new ways to communicate.
Should you opt-out?
I can't tell you that you should recycle all your Amazon devices and never use Amazon Sidewalk or that you should trust Amazon but not enough to trust Sidewalk. Nobody can.
But I can tell you that the amount of personal data you share needs to act as leverage to get a product or service you enjoy in return. I use Google products, not because I like Google tracking my every move but because the company gives me great services in exchange for it and so far has been shown to keep my data safely locked away in a server somewhere instead of selling it to whoever waves the biggest pile of cash like my cell provider does.
Amazon Sidewalk, to me at least, is a lot like my relationship with Google. There is a clear benefit to the program and there is very likely to be even greater benefits as the service matures. You need to know what you're trading — Amazon can't read any of the data sent through Sidewalk, but it can collect even better metrics on who uses its products, how we use those products, and where we use those products.
That's the kind of data Amazon uses to make billions of dollars with, so your data is worth something. Just decide if what you get back is worth the same and you have your answer.
If you opt out without a very good reason, you're kind of a dumbass.
Depends on what you constitute as "very good reason". Even something as simple as not wanting to utilize your bandwidth for it could be considered a good reason.
Personally I'm good not having Amazon hardware in my house so it's not much of a concern here, however I can definitely see why some would be concerned.
Incredibly limited rural internet is one of the legit reasons, but 500MB/month is trivial to most people. My issue is mainly with morons bemoaning privacy concerns. If you can turn sidewalk off, that means you have Amazon devices on your network. If you trust the echo show on your nightstand to be secure and private, but only up until sidewalk, then frankly you're an idiot. Either trust Amazon or don't. And if you don't think the standard is secure, get rid of your wi-fi router.
Even limiting the amount and type of data you're willing to share is reason enough for some. The notion that owning their devices means implicit unlimited trust is ludicrous.
You're not sending any data through sidewalk that you aren't already sending by using an Amazon device. You're just sending usage metrics through sidewalk, and just having an amazon smart speaker sends those. The legitimate reason (in my opinion) is if you do not trust the untested security model.
Eero says they are not participating in it and have no intent of participating. (Obviously amazon could change that since they own them). Also think it is crap you can't opt out on the web, you have to through the app. Just one more way Amazon knew people would want to opt out and make it harder to do so.
if it ever came to the U.K, which I doubt it will, I would certainly opt out., not that it would make much difference here anyway, most of our houses are made from brick, wi-fi signals find it difficult to get out of most peoples houses, so i doubt sidewalk signals will do any good. I live in a street with about 50 houses in, plus a street at the back of my house where houses back onto my garden and from here I can see 4 Wi-fi signals on my phone and one of them is mine, so two would be next door, I am not sure where the fourth one is from, but the signal strength is very low indeed. I am upstairs at the moment, sitting in front of my computer next to my front window.
So if my Echo is right next to my router and the nearest neighbor is a mile away, there's so advantage to me using it, right? Just making sure I understand.
Not really, at least right now. I'm in a similar situation and the only advantage I found is that the Alexa app could find a tile tracker when it was out of Bluetooth range.
Amazon opting everyone in by default is enough reason to turn it off. They really should have to ask. Joe and Jane Average probably wouldn't give a **** if it was explained why, but the default Opt In ******** needs to stop.
Amazon Sidewalk is the thing you're going to wish your neighbor had left on when thieves cut your internet cable to disable your Ring cameras.
This guy is saying the things I'm not allowed to write about. ^ Thieves will hate Sidewalk and this is why.
If people got sense they would buy something better than Ring cameras and from what I have heard ring/Amazon doing in the U.s with them, I would stay well clear.
I have some blink cameras outside the front and back, yes i know they are also Amazon, I am going to change them, certainly at the front of the house to something that runs on mains instead of battery, but it will not be ring, their cameras or their doorbell. To be honest, I don't really want a video doorbell anyway.
My reason for preferring to opt out is an evil neighbor. He's baited our children, disconnected our internet (the CO is in his yard), and when our handicapped child dropped a toy car in his pool, he called the police to arrest him. Seriously. I would not put it past him to turn his internet off, then torrent some illegal content just to get us in trouble. If there is an investigation or copyright claim, it will be based on our router IP address.