How the Amazon Sidewalk Network Could Change the Game for Connected Devices

If only we could trust it

  • Amazon is opening up its Sidewalk network to developers. 
  • It will enable devices to be always connected to the internet, without cellular or home Wi-Fi. 
  • Amazon already shares your private data with the police, and without a warrant.
A security camera connected to CCTV mounted on a ceiling.

Prasert Krainukul / Getty Images

Almost two years ago, Amazon launched Sidewalk, a mesh network built by sharing the connections of its Ring and Echo devices. Today, it covers 90% of the US, and Amazon is opening it up for anyone to use. 

Amazon Sidewalk works by sharing the internet connection of anyone using an Amazon device. It's designed for devices that use only a little data. For example, it allows Ring cameras to send notifications even if the owner's internet connection is cut. Now, Amazon is opening Sidewalk up to developers, and the impact could be huge.

"The real advantage for Sidewalk is that Amazon may have the experience and clout to make it stick as an industry standard. They have extensive experience managing servers and offering home devices featuring their Alexa assistant, and this should give them the technical experience and know-how to create a quality network for smart home devices," Kyle MacDonald, VP at mobile device deployment company Mojio, told Lifewire via email. 

Amazon Sidewalk Is Always On

Right now, if you want a device to have a constant internet connection, you have to have the user hook it up to their Wi-Fi network or include a cellular radio, which the user must pay to connect. That makes sense with a smartphone, but it's overkill with devices that only need to send or receive a little data. 

That's where Sidewalk comes in. It offers a low-bandwidth connection to compatible devices, but it promises that this connection will be available pretty much anywhere. Amazon claims that it covers over 90% of the US.

While Amazon's willingness to cooperate with authorities, even without a warrant, is definitely problematic, it, unfortunately, doesn't place them very far outside the mainstream in this regard.

Possible uses include shopping for books on your Kindle and keeping it synced, tracking a GPS-enabled dog collar without buying a cellular plan, and getting alerts from cameras and smart locks in locations where you don't want to pay for a dedicated internet connection. It could also deliver firmware updates to cameras or home appliances or let you use IoT (Internet of Things) automation without Wi-Fi. 

The benefits for users are obvious. I have a friend who has a house in a village in the mountains, and they maintain a landline connection to turn on the heating remotely half a day before they arrive. They also cannot use remote thermometers without first putting in internet, which is a waste for the few cumulative months they spend there each year. 

Imagine if you could just buy a connected device, switch it on, and it just works. Of course, this being Amazon, there are downsides. 

The Pitfalls of an Amazon Network

Amazon (in)famously shares footage from users' Ring cameras with police without requiring a warrant or asking your permission. Given this knowledge, it's not hard to imagine the worst when it comes to Amazon's treatment of any data passing through its network. 

Yes, Amazon's network. The US internet and cellular industry aren't particularly diverse, but Sidewalk is owned and operated by Amazon alone, which is another reason to be wary. That amount of control is worrying, even if you trust the company wielding it. 

Someone hiding in the hedges with binoculars, spying on others.

HollenderX2 / Getty Images

"By default, [Amazon’s Sidewalk] shares your internet connection if you have Echo devices. You can turn it off easily in a few seconds,” writes technology journalist Devindra Hardawar on Twitter. “If only there were some sort of rules to prevent companies from opting people into features like this!”

And finally, what if you want to disconnect a device? Right now, you can pull out a SIM card or change the password for your home Wi-Fi. With a Sidewalk-enabled device, it might not be so simple. Imagine a smart TV with Sidewalk. It could exfiltrate all your viewing data even if you never connected it to your home Wi-Fi. And your TV is almost certainly extracting and sharing that data. 

As ever, it's a trade-off between the extra convenience and the risks to your security or privacy. And Amazon might not even be that much worse than anybody else. 

"While Amazon's willingness to cooperate with authorities, even without a warrant, is definitely problematic, it, unfortunately, doesn't place them very far outside the mainstream in this regard," says McDonald. 

Used right, Sidewalk could really be transformative, allowing anything, almost anywhere, to stay connected. But the possible risks are both real and huge.

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