Are You Sharing Your Wi-Fi with Amazon? If So, Should You Be Concerned?
Last updated August 9, 2021
Amazon Sidewalk, the retail giant’s new shared wireless network, is now up and running across the United States. It’s designed to provide better coverage for Amazon devices (and affiliated products) that connect to the internet. It does this by pooling small amounts of bandwidth from users and sharing it with nearby devices.
If you have an Echo smart speaker or Ring (the company is owned by Amazon) security device, you may be powering Amazon’s “mesh network” without realizing it.
Listen to audio highlights of the story below:
Anyone with Sidewalk-compatible devices automatically became part of Amazon’s new community network when the system launched in early June. You can opt out. (More on that later.) Going forward, consumers who register new Alexa and Ring devices will be asked during setup if they want to opt in.
It’s a clever idea: Take a little bandwidth from a lot of customers to extend the range and reliability for Amazon’s connected devices and affiliated products. Here are the immediate benefits of Sidewalk, as described by Amazon:
“You can continue to receive motion alerts from your security cameras even when your Wi-Fi goes down. Or if your Wi-Fi does not reach your smart lights at the edge of your driveway, Sidewalk can help them stay connected. Sidewalk can also extend the working range for your Sidewalk-enabled devices, such as Ring smart lights, pet locators or smart locks, so they can stay connected and continue to work over longer distances.”
And the company points out, it “does not charge any fees” to join.
Critics question the security and privacy implications of Sidewalk. It could make you more vulnerable to hackers, they warn. And why didn’t Amazon ask customers if they wanted to share a slice of their home internet connection?
Washington Post technology reporter Geoffrey Fowler called Sidewalk “incredibly invasive technology” and explained why he was turning it off. While noting that Sidewalk could have many positive benefits, such as making it easier to set up smart-home devices in places where Wi-Fi doesn’t reach “…by participating, you also have no control over what sort of data you’re helping transmit,” he wrote. “Are we helping Amazon build a vast network that can be used for more surveillance?” Fowler asked.
In a June press release, Connecticut Attorney General William Tong warned residents with Amazon devices about the automatic opt-in, and urged them to “opt out unless fully confident their privacy and security will be protected.”
Last month, a class action lawsuit filed in federal court accused Amazon of “unfair, deceptive and/or fraudulent business practices” by building “an unprecedented national wireless network, but making its customers foot the bill.”
The lawsuit alleges “theft of telecommunication services” because Amazon did not get permission from its customers before using their personal Internet bandwidth, which creates the potential for “overage charges to consumers for Amazon’s use of their Internet bandwidth.”
Amazon told Checkbook it does not comment on pending litigation.
How It Works
“Sidewalk works by sharing a little bit of your internet bandwidth with your neighbors,” Amazon explains on its website. “By combining it with bandwidth donated by others in the neighborhood, Sidewalk creates a low-bandwidth, low-power network that can be used by neighbors to help one another in new ways.”
This smart neighborhood network is built on so-called “Sidewalk Bridges”—currently, many Echo devices and some Ring Floodlight and Spotlight Cams—that connect via Wi-Fi to the internet.
These Sidewalk bridges “siphon off a tiny amount of your home’s Wi-Fi bandwidth, and then use it to relay signals from Sidewalk-compatible devices using Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE, up to Amazon’s servers in the cloud,” the tech editors at CNET explained. Sidewalk will use 900 MHz radio signals to reach compatible devices unable to connect with Wi-Fi, as far as half a mile away.
Amazon says the maximum bandwidth of each Sidewalk bridge transmission is a miniscule 80 kbps, so it shouldn’t impact your home internet connections. The monthly data allowance is capped at 500 MB, which the company says is equivalent to streaming about 10 minutes of high-definition video.
The current list of Sidewalk Bridges, according to Amazon, includes: 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 (2nd gen), Echo Show 5, 8, 10 (all generations), Echo Spot, Echo Studio, Echo Input, and Echo Flex.
Products that can connect to those bridges include Tile trackers, Level smart locks, Ring outdoor smart lights, Ring motion and mailbox sensors, and CareBand (a line of wearable devices that can help find people with dementia if they wander away).
It’s fair to assume more Internet of Things (IOT) devices will be added to the list. Amazon says it plans for Sidewalk to support “a range of experiences” from smart lighting to diagnostics for appliances and tools.
What About Security?
Security threats are inherent with using the internet, but does Sidewalk increase those vulnerabilities?
The class action lawsuit against Amazon asserts that customers who take part in Sidewalk “are at imminent risk of future harm, including increased risk to the security of their personal data.”
In a white paper explaining Sidewalk, Amazon says security and privacy are “foundational” to Sidewalk, which uses three layers of encryption to keep data shared over the network safe. Those same strong encryption standards are required for all applications and devices that use the network.
Other privacy safeguards noted in Amazon’s white paper:
- Amazon says it cannot see and will not collect the data transmitted by Sidewalk.
- Any information used to route that data will be deleted after 24 hours.
- Because Sidewalk constantly changes the IDs of devices on the network, the data being transmitted cannot be linked to specific customers.
- Because devices that access Sidewalk don’t join your home Wi-Fi network—they simply use the bandwidth borrowed by Amazon—your neighbors cannot view data sent from your devices or know when your devices are connected via Sidewalk, and vice versa.
Pam Dixon, executive director of the World Privacy Forum, looked at Amazon’s protocols, and gives the company high marks.
“I think they have done some very sophisticated mitigation of potential privacy issues,” Dixon told Checkbook. “I was impressed with the system architecture, and the level of thought that had gone into this. They knew they would be under the microscope, and they made a very sophisticated system.”
Other security experts cautioned that there’s the potential for problems any time others can access your home network. And because of its size, Sidewalk will quickly become a high-profile target for hackers, they noted.
Pardis Emami-Naeini, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington Security and Privacy Research Lab, said Sidewalk “will open up new vulnerabilities,” and she’s concerned users do not understand the risks and rewards of participating.
“This is not just about Amazon,” Emami-Naeini told Checkbook. “Third-party companies who have Sidewalk-compatible devices can connect to the Sidewalk protocol. So, the important question here is how can you ensure those other companies are following best practices and respect and protect users' privacy and security? A vulnerability in any of the networked third-party devices would then become a risk, one that users have to pay the price for.”
How to Turn it Off
If you own a Sidewalk Bridge device, you can disconnect from the network at any time. For Alexa products go to the Amazon website. For Ring devices, you’ll need to go to the Ring website. Disabling Sidewalk will not impact the original functionality of the device, Amazon says.
Worried about someone finding out where you live? Amazon already knows where its connected products are located, unless you lied when you provided your location during set-up.
If you have the “Community Finding Feature” enabled—this makes it possible to locate Tile trackers, pet trackers, and people wearing CareBands—Amazon will share the approximate location of your Sidewalk bridge devices to other Sidewalk users who’ve turned on the Community Finding feature. Note: While Sidewalk was enabled by default, Community Finding was not. You must activate the feature.
So, should you opt out of Sidewalk? It all depends on how you use your Amazon-connected devices and your comfort level. You can opt out now, and see what happens, or stay connected and give it a try. You can change your mind at any time.
Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.