Last week, Amazon said it would turn on Sidewalk, its mesh network that uses Bluetooth and 900MHz radio signals to communicate between devices, on June 8. I imagine that most people, even those who bought an Echo smart speaker in the past few years, have no idea what Sidewalk is.
I suspect most of those people would be even more surprised to know that it’s turned on by default on every one of their devices. I’ll get to that part in just a minute.
First, let’s talk about Sidewalk. The idea behind is actually really smart–make it possible for smart home devices to serve as a sort of bridge between your WiFi connection and one another. That way, if your Ring doorbell, for example, isn’t located close to your WiFi router, but it happens to near an Echo Dot, it can use Sidewalk to stay connected.
The same is true if your internet connection is down. Your smart devices can connect to other smart devices, even if they aren’t in your home. The big news on this front is that Tile is joining the Sidewalk network on June 14. That means that if you lose a Tile tracker, it can connect to any of the millions of Echo or Ring devices in your neighborhood and send its location back to you.
That’s definitely a nice benefit, but it’s also where things get a little murky from a privacy standpoint. That’s because other people’s devices, like your neighbor’s, can also connect to your network.
Amazon is pretty clear that Sidewalk uses three layers of encryption so that no data is shared between say, someone’s Tile tracker and your network. The signal from the Tile is encrypted all the way back to the Tile app on your iPhone or Android smartphone.
Still, a feature like this seems like the type of thing you’d want some control over. If suddenly my devices are going to start connecting to my neighbor’s WiFi, or theirs to mine, it seems like you’d have to opt-in, right?
That’s because Amazon has enabled Sidewalk on every capable device by default. Whether or not you want your device connecting to other devices, or want your neighbors connecting to your WiFi, Amazon went ahead and made Sidewalk opt-out.
To be fair, there’s a good reason it did. A mesh network of devices requires, well, a mesh. That means Amazon needs as many devices as possible to have the feature turned on. If it required you to enable it on your own, Amazon knows that almost no one would.
That has nothing to do with whether people have privacy concerns, it’s just that almost no one changes the default setting for anything. Make “on” the default option and suddenly Amazon has millions of devices that can connect to Sidewalk, creating a true mesh network.
Still, opt-out is a really bad way to operate, especially when it comes to things that connect all of the devices in your neighborhood to a mesh network. What if you’re just not comfortable with that? The good news is you can turn it off.
Amazon doesn’t make it easy, but if you have the Alexa app, you can tap on the More tab at the bottom, then select Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk. You’ll see that it’s set to “Enabled.” Just tap the toggle and you can disable Sidewalk for all of the devices on your account.