Why Amazon's Sidewalk Network Seems Creepy

Sharing your internet connection with strangers? What could possibly go wrong?

Key Takeaways

  • Amazon Sidewalk turns all connected smart home devices into a giant, public mesh network.
  • Your Echo and Ring devices will automatically share your internet connection unless you opt-out.
  • You will at least be able to find your keys.
A suburban area connected by an overlaid network of dots and lines.

olaser / Getty Images

On June 8, Amazon will switch on Sidewalk. Then if you own an Echo or Ring device, it will share your internet connection with any neighbor or passerby. 

Sidewalk is Amazon’s attempt to build an instant mesh network. The idea is that all these connected Echos, Rings, smart lights, motion sensors, security cameras, and so on will connect to each other and provide city-wide coverage. The advantage for you, says Amazon, is that your Tile trackers will always be online or that your home security cameras will remain connected even if your internet goes down. But this is Amazon, so people are skeptical. 

"Amazon has gotten a lot of bad press recently for its treatment of workers, and articles run frequently about the kind of information the Echo is harvesting from users. Sidewalk also feels like it will be more connected and pervasive," Christen Costa, CEO of Gadget Review, told Lifewire via email.

Mesh Mess

When Amazon switches on Sidewalk, all your Amazon smart home devices will be hooked up automatically, whether you like it or not. To opt-out, you have to use the Amazon Alexa app and dig into the settings to disable Sidewalk.

Amazon says that Sidewalk uses only a small amount of your internet bandwidth—just 80Kbps. That’s tiny, so you should see no speed impact. Maximum data use is also capped at 500MB.

Illustration showing how Amazon Sidewalk works

Amazon

The idea is that this creates a network for other Amazon devices. You could install a security camera in a garage that’s out of range of your home Wi-Fi, but is in range of your neighbors’ Sidewalk network, for example. Mesh networks are resilient and can keep operating even if some of the individual internet connections that power it go down.

The advantages for Amazon are many. 

"Amazon needs to create a gigantic, resilient network for its various services to work in the future," 555vCTO founder Vaclav Vincalek told Lifewire via email. "From delivery trucks to delivery drones and third party apps, they all will be able to use this network. Think of the smart city, but on steroids."

But that’s not what’s worrying people. 

Bad Actor

Amazon has earned a reputation as a bad steward of your data. For instance, it has partnered with police departments to share recordings from your Ring security cameras without asking you for permission. 

"The cynical side of me says this is solely about data harvesting and sharing," says Costa. "Amazon connects the accounts of people you interact with frequently when it comes to advertising you things. This gives them a larger pool of data for that."

"...Articles run frequently about the kind of information the Echo is harvesting from users. Sidewalk also feels like it will be more connected and pervasive."

Given this track record, it’s easy to assume that Amazon will abuse the data it gathers from its countrywide network. 

That’s not all. This might be the first you’ve heard of Sidewalk, and yet it will roll out in less than a week. That kind of stealthy launch doesn’t sound like something Amazon is proud to announce. Compare this to Prime Day, which is hard to avoid once Amazon’s publicity machine kicks in. It’s almost as if Amazon wanted to activate this without anyone noticing.

Compare this to Apple’s recent AirTags announcement. This uses a network of 1 billion Apple devices (iPhones, mostly) to relay tracking blips from AirTags and other third-party trackers to the owners of those trackers. And yet, the only complaints about this massive operation were to do with the AirTags not having holes to hang them on keychains. 

That’s because people trust Apple. It crows about its commitment to privacy at every opportunity, but it also backs up its claims with an actual commitment. When it makes a mistake—like sending recordings from Hey Siri out to third-party contractors—we assume it was just that: a mistake. If Amazon makes a mistake, we assume it was really the secret plan all along. 

And Apple got out in front of any AirTags privacy concerns by clearly communicating its anti-stalker features, for example, while Amazon seems to be sneaking Sidewalk out. 

An indoor security camera on a surface with a child's toys.

vladi79 / Getty Images

More Downsides

It might seem great to have a more robust internet connection for your smart home gadgets, but this comes with its own downside—it’s harder to disconnect your devices, too. You might not want your indoor surveillance cameras connected all the time. 

Another possibility is that you may violate your internet service agreement by sharing your connection with others. In practice, this may be unlikely, but if it is a problem, it’s you on the hook, not Amazon. 

In the end, however, the main downside is that we just don’t trust Amazon. to do what's right with our data.

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