On June 8, Amazon is set to flip the switch on its new free service called
, which will automatically be enabled on many of
Amazon’s Echo smart speakers
, as well as some Ring devices (for more details, see the
complete list of compatible devices
). Once Sidewalk goes live, compatible devices such as speakers, light bulbs, locks, and sensors will be able to connect anonymously to other Sidewalk devices to borrow a little slice of internet connectivity. That should enable some interesting features down the line as more compatible devices appear. It’s also creating a fair amount of consternation about privacy and security—and for internet providers in particular, resentment that Amazon is giving away their internet service for free.
Before we get to those concerns, there’s a ton of techy details and policy info to cover. But the four most salient points you need to know are:
By default, compatible devices will automatically have Sidewalk enabled.
Your involvement is completely optional.
turn Sidewalk on or off at any time easily
Your internet service provider does not like Sidewalk and could potentially flag you for using it.
Depending on your perspective, Sidewalk is either terrific news about some potentially cool capabilities for your smart-home devices or a ham-fisted and terminally awful privacy and security gamble that offers little benefit to device owners while further expanding Amazon’s already sizable reach into American households. We think it’s actually a little of both.
Here’s everything you need to know about Sidewalk to make the best decision for yourself.
What will Sidewalk do?
If it works as planned, Sidewalk should allow faster and less complex setup of new devices, plus expansive location tracking and notifications via compatible devices such as
and CareBands (and maybe even smartphones). It should also be able to help devices that have wireless-range issues, such as outdoor cameras and bulbs, stay connected to the internet. That’s the early pitch so far.
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How does Sidewalk work?
The big, and controversial, feature of Sidewalk is that it runs by instructing Echo or Ring devices in your home to share a trickle of internet bandwidth so that other Sidewalk-compatible devices that come in range can connect to the internet. As a result, a little of your bandwidth, and a little of your neighbor’s bandwidth, becomes available to other Sidewalk devices. Amazon says it will limit the speed of those devices to 80 kbps and will cap data consumption at 500 MB per month—super slow, and an amount of data equivalent to 10 or so minutes of streamed video. Crucially, you will never know who is sharing your signal (or when), and vice versa—your devices will never be able to tell which Sidewalk device you’re connected to when you leave home.
To get an idea of how Sidewalk may work, if you have a Tile tracker on a kid’s backpack or a dog’s collar, for example, you could conceivably follow their progress as the tracker seamlessly connects to and disconnects from all the various Sidewalk devices in your neighborhood, town, or city. Or, if you have a compatible smart light, such as a Ring spotlight that sometimes drifts in and out of wireless range—or even if your internet simply goes down—it could hop onto your neighbor’s network temporarily so that you never lose access to it.
What devices are affected?
For now the following devices will have Sidewalk automatically turned on (unless you opt out) to act as an internet gateway: 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, and Echo Flex.
Amazon will continue to add partner devices over time, but for now notable devices that will be able to make use of the Sidewalk network include Tile trackers, CareBands, and Level smart locks.
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Why are people freaking out?
Somewhat understandably, plenty of people are expressing grave concern that allowing strangers to connect to your networked devices is inherently risky. The main worry is that, per Murphy’s Law, inevitably something will go wrong and either a hacker or some unwitting device owner will have access to someone else’s personal data. In short, the concern is that Amazon is opening a window that wasn’t there before and is greatly increasing risk to its customers.
, founder of the
project and a PhD candidate at Georgia Tech specializing in security for smart-home Internet of Things devices, notes that of particular concern are the potential sorts of vulnerabilities that may crop up not because of Amazon but because of the third-party companies that will have Sidewalk-compatible devices, similar to the select few available at launch. “Amazon uses layered security and restricts the amount of data that the gateway, application, and cloud can see, but every system has bugs, and it’s really hard to tell until time passes and things are found,” Alrawi says. “I think the third-party integration is a potential issue. How do you enforce that a third party won’t abuse your information?” So while Amazon may have strict privacy and security policies, all it takes is for any of those other companies to either disobey the policies or be infiltrated before you end up having your data compromised.
Compounding the privacy concerns is that Amazon has made Sidewalk an opt-out service—meaning you have to
proactively turn it off
if you don’t want to be involved—instead of opt-in. We suspect that many people will have no idea that their device has been linked to Sidewalk and is now part of a national mesh network.
On top of that, Sidewalk may run into issues with some internet service providers’ terms of service agreements. And if a device owner has a particularly low data cap or metered service, they may unwittingly exceed their maximum and get charged out the wazoo.
We spoke to one representative of a major internet service provider (they requested anonymity due to legal concerns) that has been in high-level conversations with other ISPs. The rep confirmed those concerns, further stating: “Amazon does not have the right to do this, full stop. I can speak for the industry when I say we all have similar types of terms of service, which are designed to protect our networks and the data and privacy of our customers, and it is not Amazon’s network to be sharing—they are putting their customers in violation of their agreements with their providers, and it is straight-up theft.” When asked to comment, an Amazon spokesperson stated, “Most standard ISP terms would not prohibit activities like participating in Sidewalk.”
Why isn’t Wirecutter freaking out?
Honestly, we’re as upset as anyone else that Amazon has made this an opt-out service, in the same way that Ring—another Amazon-owned brand—has long forced device owners to opt out of its controversial
. When it comes to issues of privacy and security, we’re never fans of the “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” ethos. The problem is only amplified by the potential conflicts with ISP service agreements—by making this an opt-out decision, Amazon has put its customers in the position of breaking their agreements with their ISPs by default, rather than allowing them to choose to do so. That’s just bad policy.
On a practical level, however, we actually trust Amazon’s software and security chops as much as or more than we trust those of just about any other major tech company. Amazon’s retail business is a trusted partner that supports more than a million transactions a day, and its cloud services
are relied upon by a who’s who of the Fortune 500
(including The New York Times), along with the CIA and who knows how many state and government agencies. “I know there have been some issues with Alexa recordings, but in terms of security I would trust Amazon as one of the top one or two companies around,” Alrawi says. “And from our labs, when looking at Amazon Alexa devices, they’re one of the ones that rank highly in terms of security.”
Wirecutter prizes security and privacy—in fact, it’s one of the
key criteria by which
we judge electronic devices. However, every tech company we know has had, now has, and will continue to have some form of security vulnerability crop up:
—everyone has encountered something at some point. Relatively speaking, Amazon has a comparably good track record (though Ring in particular has been plagued by privacy shortcomings that
made the news
). We didn’t panic
when Apple launched AirTags
If I still want to opt out of Sidewalk, how do I do that?
Hey, we get it: The risk may simply not be worth the reward for you.
If you enable Sidewalk on any compatible Sidewalk gateway device, such as an Echo or Ring, you enable it on all of your other compatible gateway devices. (And the reverse is true, too: Disabling it for one disables it for all—you can’t pick and choose.) If you ever change your mind, you can go back in and enable Sidewalk via the same process.
Here’s how to disable Sidewalk:
Echo device owners, open your Alexa app on your smartphone.
Look for the sandwich menu (three lines), labeled More, at the bottom right of the dashboard and tap it.
Use the slider to choose
Ring device owners should follow these instructions.
Open the Ring app.
Go to the sandwich menu (three lines) in the upper left of the dashboard.
Use the slider to choose
When prompted, tap
to indicate that you wish to disable Sidewalk.