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June 10, 2021

Amazon Sidewalk Should be Kicked to the Curb

It may already be sharing your Internet connection AND your data.

Amazon Sidewalk went live in millions of homes today, June 9. If you have a late model Echo or an Amazon Ring device, Sidewalk can now use your internet connection for other people’s data and send your data through other people’s internet connections unless you already knew about this intrusion and turned it off.

Somehow none of the copious emails I get from Amazon mentioned this.

What is Sidewalk?

Sidewalk is a clever technology which has quietly been built into Echo devices since 2018 and into all Ring devices. Part of it is a radio which uses neither Bluetooth nor WiFi but can communicate with similar radios up to a half mile away. A similar technology is used in smart electric meters.

The rest is technology which uses the WiFi connection you set up for your Amazon device to send data the radio has received from your neighbors and to send some of your data to your neighbors for transmission over their internet connections.  Sidewalk is a mesh network of connected devices which can use any internet connection in the mesh for any device in the mesh. For technical reasons, it can currently only transfer relatively small amounts of data.

A list of devices with Sidewalk enabled is here as well as information on becoming a Sidewalk developer.

Why is Sidewalk?

An article in The Washington Post quotes an email from Manolo Arana, Amazon’s general manager of Sidewalk:

“We live in an increasingly connected world where customers want their devices to stay connected. We built Sidewalk to improve customers’ experiences with their devices and to benefit their communities.”

Reasons we would want Sidewalk, he said, include continuing to receive motion alerts from Ring security cameras when they lose WiFi or extending the range of smart lights. Later this month, Amazon is also adding Bluetooth lost-item tracker Tile and smart lock maker Level to the Sidewalk network. And it is partnering with CareBand, a maker of wearable sensors for people with dementia, on a pilot test including indoor and outdoor tracking and a help button.

(BTW, kudos to The Post, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, but recommends turning Sidewalk off).

At its best, Sidewalk is backup for your security system if your own or a neighbor’s Internet connection goes down. It lets Tiles work outside the range of Bluetooth and lets other devices work outside the range of your WiFi. It does extend the internet of things and can be an alternative to using expensive cellular connections for devices with small data requirements.

What’s wrong with Sidewalk?

  1. Security. Even though Amazon has a good record in avoiding cyber-attacks (so far) and security people more knowledgeable than me say the Sidewalk encryption scheme is robust, anything that can be hacked will be hacked. Amazon says Sidewalk will be built into 3d party devices; each one of them is a potential Trojan Horse. Do you want data from your security system on an unmanaged mesh network? Amazon didn’t ask you before turning the service on.
  2. Bandwidth sharing. If there are data caps on your home internet connection or it is some form of miserable DSL with little bandwidth to spare, do you want to use some of that bandwidth to support your neighbors’ devices? Amazon didn’t ask you before turning the service on.
  3. Possible violations of your ISP’s terms of service. Some ISPs are quoted as saying that we signed agreements that we would only use our connections for our own data, not that of our neighbors. You probably didn’t read the terms of service (ToS) any more closely than I did. I don’t take this one too seriously. If I forward an email or upload a big file that someone gave me on a thumb drive, am I violating the ToS? But Amazon didn’t ask if I wanted to fight with my ISP.
  4. Amazon didn’t ask before turning the service on! It’s obvious why: for the mesh to work, many homes must have it enabled. Most people wouldn’t bother to enable it, especially since there may not be an immediate benefit to them. Communication services need critical mass. Amazon has a critical mass of devices installed. It didn’t want to give that advantage away, so it just turned the service on without either asking or even a massive publicity campaign about benefits and possible drawbacks and how to opt out.

How do I turn Sidewalk off? (from the NYTImes which likes it but thinks it should’ve been optin)

Echo device owners, open your Alexa app on your smartphone.

  1. Look for the sandwich menu (three lines), labeled More, at the bottom right of the dashboard and tap it.
  2. Select Settings.
  3. Select Account Settings.
  4. Select Amazon Sidewalk. Use the slider to choose Disabled.

Ring device owners should follow these instructions.

  1. Open the Ring app.
  2. Go to the sandwich menu (three lines) in the upper left of the dashboard.
  3. Select Control Center.
  4. Select Amazon Sidewalk. Use the slider to choose Disabled.
  5. When prompted, tap Confirm to indicate that you wish to disable Sidewalk.

Note: If your Alexa is too old to have Sidewalk radios, you won’t see the Sidewalk option in the app.

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