Amazon Sidewalk is right around the corner - do you need to walk away?

David Strom, 4 Jun 2021
David Strom, 4 Jun 2021

Starting next week, all Amazon devices will be automatically opted in to their new mesh network. Should you opt out now?

 Amazon is releasing a new service called Sidewalk, which allows people to share their wireless network with their neighbors over a low-power Bluetooth mesh network. If you want to read more, Amazon has published details on Sidewalk here. The main benefit would be expanding the WiFi coverage for low bandwidth devices.  Amazon explains that Sidewalk would enable outdoor devices such as security cameras and smart lamps to stay connected even when wifi connection is lost as they are often at the edge of a home’s wifi coverage.  Additionally, this service can be used for Tile trackers to locate valuables.  While the service is free, there are serious privacy concerns. 

For one, this service will be enabled by default. If you already own an Amazon device, it will be automatically updated and operational by June 14. The full list of devices that can act as Sidewalk bridges includes Ring Floodlight Cam (2019), Ring Spotlight Cam Wired and Mount (2019), and various Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Plus, Echo Show, Echo Spot, Echo Studio, Echo Input, and Echo Flex. Sidewalk connections are also built-in to Tile and CareBand tracking devices and Level smart locks.  This means that the onus is on the consumers to proactively opt out of participating in this program.  

Another privacy concern is regarding the data itself.  Amazon has said that the data that is transmitted over Sidewalk Bridges will be encrypted.  The devices will not know which gateways they are connected to and gateways will not know which devices they are connected to.   Amazon has designed a three-layer encryption system, but it is a new protocol and there are significant risks.  Security can be breached and networks can be hacked. Dan Goodin on Ars says “Amazon's experimental wireless mesh networking turns users into guinea pigs. Extending the reach of all this encrypted data to the sidewalk and living rooms of neighbors requires a level of confidence that’s not warranted for a technology that has never seen widespread testing.” Color us skeptical too.

Even more importantly, the fact remains that such a network of devices expands Amazon’s already expansive reach.  PC Magazine elaborates that: “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.” 

The actions by Amazon are worrisome for the simple reason that the default (meaning if you do nothing) is to opt into these services automatically. 

We at Avast believe that individuals should have control over their personal data. If you would like to not participate in this new network, we have provided instructions on how to opt out below.

How to opt out of Amazon Sidewalk

Here’s how:

  1. Open the Alexa smartphone app (not the desktop, sorry) and go to More/Settings/Account Settings/Amazon Sidewalk
  2. As an alternative, open the Ring smartphone app and go to Control Center/Sidewalk
  3. Turn Amazon Sidewalk Off (“Disabled”)

Should you toss your Alexa Echo or Ring doorbell? (Those links will take you to previous blog posts about what they already know about you, even before Sidewalk.)  Probably not. But we recommend considering all of the privacy ramifications when considering buying any new smart home device. However, giving your business to Apple or Google instead of Amazon isn’t a guarantee that your data will forever remain private and under your control either.

This won’t be the last time that governments and private companies will try to obtain your data without your explicit permission. This means we all must take an active role in protecting our privacy.