Amazon Sidewalk: Should You Share Your Network?

If you own any of the following Amazon products:

  • 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
  • Echo Flex

You’re about to be sharing your internet connection with Amazon’s new “Sidewalk” service that will be turned on June 8, 2021.

A lot has been made about Sidewalk, and a lot has been misunderstood. If you’re curious about what Sidewalk actually does, and how it works (and doesn’t work) this article is for you. Hopefully this will let you make a more informed choice about the risks and rewards of Amazon’s newest network.

What is Amazon Sidewalk?

According to Amazon’s page on Sidewalk, this new service is:

[A] shared network that helps devices like Amazon Echo devices, Ring Security Cams, outdoor lights, motion sensors, and Tile trackers work better at home and beyond the front door. When enabled, Sidewalk can unlock unique benefits for your device, support other Sidewalk devices in your community, and even locate pets or lost items.

Essentially, it is a low-powered mesh network using either Bluetooth Low-Energy (BLE) for older devices or the much lower-frequency 900 Mhz radio band. The 900 Mhz radio will offer superior range and building penetration when compared with WiFi frequencies, along with much lower power consumption and bandwidth throughput.

How Does It Work?

For the real nuts-and-bolts look into Sidewalk, you can read Amazon’s own white paper on the protocol.

Here’s a very watered-down look at the basic network structure:

  • The Amazon Echo and Ring devices listed at the top of this blog post are called Sidewalk Gateways. These move data back and forth from the Sidewalk Endpoints to the Sidewalk Network Server using BLE and/or 900 Mhz radio bands. They use a technology known as frequency-shift keying that allows for very low power usage (but also relatively slow data transmission).
  • Sidewalk Endpoints are the devices that use the Sidewalk Gateways to connect to the internet. These will be the Tile trackers, door locks, lights, or other low-power and low-bandwidth products.
    • Sidewalk Gateways can also function as Endpoints if their primary internet connection is taken offline. They will need to be within range of another internet-connected Gateway, though.
  • The Sidewalk Network Server verifies that data is coming from the correct device, and routes the data to the correct application server. Application servers are run by the Endpoint manufacturer (Amazon, Tile, etc.) to give their devices the desired functionality.

For security, the network itself uses three layers of encryption for all the data transmitted:

  • The Sidewalk Application Layer secures the information between the Endpoint and the Application Server
  • Sidewalk Network Layer encrypts the data again at the Endpoint. This is encrypted using a key shared with the Network Server.
  • A Flex Layer of encryption is again added at the Endpoint. This provides tamper-proof reference for message-received time as well as additional security.

Since the data from the Endpoint is encrypted by at least one level of encryption until it reaches the Application server, Sidewalk does use secure, end-to-end encryption.

As an additional privacy feature, Amazon even says that the routing data – that could show the network (and likely location) of when and where an Endpoint connected to a Gateway – would be deleted after 24 hours.

Will It Mess Up My Internet?

This, of course, depends a lot on your individual internet connection, but here’s what Amazon says:

The maximum bandwidth of a Sidewalk Bridge to the Sidewalk server is 80Kbps, which is about 1/40th of the bandwidth used to stream a typical high definition video. Today, when you share your Bridge’s connection with Sidewalk, total monthly data used by Sidewalk, per account, is capped at 500MB, which is equivalent to streaming about 10 minutes of high definition video.

So, if you’re internet speed isn’t great, it may be noticeable, but I doubt it. If you’re on an internet service plan with a tight data cap, you may also not appreciate that Sidewalk can use up to half a gig of your precious data.

Why Is Everyone So Mad About It?

Like lots of big-tech missteps, the reason people are upset isn’t necessarily because of the technology.

It’s because Amazon is turning this feature on by default, and making users opt-out if they don’t want to share (a limited portion of) their bandwidth. Likely many people will never know that it is enabled, and while this may not noticibly impact their internet service, this does feel like something that users should have to join voluntarily rather than be pushed into.

There’s also the matter of the vast amount of (potentially sensitive) data that this could generate. And while Amazon’s security solution seems adequate, there are vulnerabilities uncovered in well-known specs (like Bluetooth and WiFi) all the time.

If you have an Amazon Sidewalk-capable device, and you want to disable Sidewalk, Amazon has instructions to do that. It’s worth pointing out that turning off Sidewalk is an account-level activity, you can’t disable the feature for certain devices. Sidewalk will go live for all devices on June 8, 2021.