Amazon Echo users received an email just before Thanksgiving about a new feature coming to their smart speakers: Amazon Sidewalk, a shared neighborhood networking protocol that allows devices such as motion detectors and pet trackers to connect to the internet even when they’re out of Wi-Fi range.
It’s a nifty idea, and with enough Echo speakers and Ring devices (some of Amazon’s Ring cameras work with Sidewalk, too) working together as Sidewalk bridges, you could have a low-power, long-range Sidewalk network that spans an entire neighborhood.
But Amazon’s vaguely worded email soft-pedals a key issue when it comes to Sidewalk functionality on your Echo and Ring devices: rather than being an opt-in feature, it’s opt-out, meaning that unless you actively turn off Sidewalk support, it’ll be enabled by default. (An Amazon spokesperson confirmed to TechHive that Sidewalk will, indeed, be an opt-out feature.)
“Sidewalk is coming to your Echo device later this year” the email reads, “but you can disable this feature at any time from the Amazon Alexa app.”
Sidewalk is opt-out, not opt-in
Now, this sentence didn’t set off alarm bells in my head when I first read it; after all, “later this year” sounds comfortably far off in the future, right?
Of course, if you stop and think for a second, you realize that there’s barely a month left in 2020 (thank goodness), and “it’s coming” means that it—Sidewalk—is, in fact, coming to your Echo device, unless you do something about it.
What exactly are the consequences of having Sidewalk running on your Echo and Ring devices? Will doing so allow strangers with Sidewalk-enabled gadgets a free ride on your home internet connection? And what are the benefits of keeping Sidewalk turned on?
Sidewalk, privacy, and you
For its part, Amazon promises a raft of security measures designed to protect both the owners of Sidewalk bridges as well as passersby with devices that can connect to Sidewalk.
Data that travels on Sidewalk networks is secured by three levels of encryption, Amazon says, while one-way hashing keys, cryptographic algorithms, and rotating device IDs help to “minimize” the data of Sidewalk users. In other words, those who connect to your Sidewalk bridge won’t be able to see you or your data, and you won’t see them. (Amazon has an entire whitepaper devoted to Sidewalk security.)
Amazon also promises that nearby Sidewalk users won’t unduly sap your internet connection, with Sidewalk only using a maximum of 80Kbps of bandwidth at any given time and no more than 500MB of total monthly data. Now, 500MB isn’t nothing, particularly for those with home data caps, but as Amazon points out, it’s only equivalent to about 10 minutes of HD video streaming.
There are good things about Sidewalk, too
Let’s not forget that a Sidewalk network in your neighborhood could also offer plenty of enticing benefits. Thanks to Sidewalk, you could (for example) get alerts from a motion sensor on the edge of your property—including the Ring Mailbox Sensor we recently reviewed—even if it’s out of Wi-Fi range. It would also make it much easier to track down missing items that you’ve tagged with a Tile tracker, which will be among the first third-party devices that can connect to Sidewalk networks.
Still, should Amazon have adopted an opt-in policy for Sidewalk rather than an opt-out one? Well, yeah, particularly given the privacy controversies that have dogged Echo and Ring devices over the past couple of years. And while I can see why Amazon thought going the opt-out way would give Sidewalk a running start, it also makes for an unfortunate—and avoidable—privacy stumble right out of the gate.
How to disable Sidewalk on Echo, Ring devices
Should you decide to opt out of Sidewalk participation, it’s a piece of cake with just a few steps that will impact all your connected Echo and Ring devices.
- Open the Alexa app, tap More > Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk.
- If you want to turn off Sidewalk support completely, toggle off the Amazon Sidewalk setting, and you’re done.
- Another option is to allow Sidewalk but disable Community Finding, a feature that lets the owners of Sidewalk-enabled trackers to pinpoint their lost devices or pets. Amazon promises that the Community Finding feature will only let users see an “approximate” location, and that location data won’t reveal any personal information. Still, if you wish, you can go ahead and turn Community Finding off.