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Amazon Sidewalk is now live. Here's what to know before sharing your home's bandwidth

Live now and enabled by default, Sidewalk keeps other people's devices near your home connected by passing their signals through your Echo and Ring devices.

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The Echo Dot with Clock, one of the many Amazon and Ring gadgets that will double as Sidewalk bridges starting on June 8.

Chris Monroe/CNET

June 8 marked the launch of Amazon Sidewalk, a new feature that promises to keep your home devices better connected, especially around the edges of your property. The gist is that select Amazon Echo smart speakers and Ring gadgets will serve as bridges capable of connecting with other Sidewalk-enabled devices at long range using wireless Bluetooth LE or 900MHz LoRa signals -- plus a small fraction of your home network's bandwidth. By doing so, these products will become part of a sort of mesh network, with your Echo or Ring device acting as a middleman between your router and, say, those smart lights in the backyard that sit right at the edge of Wi-Fi range.

But Sidewalk isn't just for your outdoor lights and other smart home devices: It's for everybody's gadgets. If your neighbor uses a Sidewalk-enabled mailbox sensor that's in range of the Sidewalk bridges in your home, that sensor may very well use your network to connect to the cloud.

Is it as scary as it sounds?

At launch, I don't think so. I have a separate post that goes a little deeper into what Amazon says it's doing to keep Sidewalk private and secure -- the short version is that the company uses three layers of encryption for all Sidewalk transmissions, and the network is designed so that even Amazon can't see any of that data. Amazon adds that it deletes the data used to route Sidewalk transmissions every 24 hours, and that it uses rolling IDs to prevent those transmissions from being tied to any specific user. 

It's also important to understand that other people's Sidewalk devices won't actually be able to access, join or even see your home's Wi-Fi network, and you won't have any access to information about those devices or their users, either. Outside devices like those will connect anonymously with your Echo or Ring device over Bluetooth LE or LoRa, and your Echo or Ring device will pass their signal on to the cloud using a very tiny amount of your home network's bandwidth.

Specifically, those transmissions are capped at 80Kbps each, with a maximum data usage of 500MB each month. That might sound like a lot, but according to Statista, internet usage spiked to a peak of about 400GB per month in 2020. That's 400,000MB. 500MB is about 0.125% of that figure.

Sidewalk's data usage might still be a concern if your internet plan comes with a data cap and you'll be charged extra for exceeding it, but aside from outliers like Viasat's satellite internet, most plans like those come with caps of at least 1TB. That's 1,000GB, or 1 million MB. In that case, Sidewalk's monthly data usage would, at max, account for 0.05% of your data allowance.

Personally, I'm willing to give Sidewalk a shot, but I can understand why many are wary -- especially when you start to wonder about how Amazon might ultimately use this anonymous, low-bandwidth network that works wherever people use Echo or Ring devices.

"Our focus right now is to make our customers' devices work better," Amazon's general manager for Sidewalk, Manolo Arana, recently told the Washington Post. "I'm not able to comment on future roadmap plans."

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Amazon Sidewalk is enabled by default but the "Community Finding" feature, which shares your home's approximate location with other people, is off by default.

Screenshots by Ry Crist/CNET

The bigger problem: It's on by default

Amazon's assurances aside, the very idea of Sidewalk is still raising lots of eyebrows. Most concerning for some: Sidewalk is enabled by default, so you'll need to navigate to the Alexa app's account settings section to turn it off if you don't want to participate. 

When you do so, you'll notice that Sidewalk actually comes with two separate privacy permissions: a main toggle for switching Sidewalk on and off, and a second toggle that controls something called "Community Finding." Unlike the main Sidewalk permission, the Community Finding permission is off by default.

Amazon explains that this second permission is all about Tile trackers and other Sidewalk-enabled devices meant to help people find things. 

"If you also enable Community Finding, you have the option to help your neighbors by sharing your Bridge's approximate location to provide benefits like helping them locate their pet," an Amazon spokesperson says. "Neighbors using Community Finding won't be able to see the exact street address of your Sidewalk Bridge. They will only see an approximate location. This setting will apply to all of your Sidewalk Bridges."

It's important to note that Amazon anonymizes that location data. If I had Community Finding turned on and someone dropped a wallet with a Sidewalk-enabled Tile tracker in it outside my house, they'd receive an alert with the approximate area where the wallet is located or the closest nearby intersection. That alert wouldn't identify me or my home, and it wouldn't allow that person to contact me or access my home network.

To recap, here's what is and isn't on by default with Amazon Sidewalk:

On by default

  • Localized Bluetooth LE connections between the Sidewalk bridges and Sidewalk-enabled devices in your home.
  • Long-range, Bluetooth LE and 900MHz connections between your Sidewalk bridges and Sidewalk-enabled devices outside of your home, including other people's devices.
  • Long-range, Bluetooth LE and 900MHz connections between your Sidewalk-enabled devices and Sidewalk bridges outside the home, including other people's bridges.
  • Bandwidth sharing to send these signals to Amazon's servers using your home network (no more than 80Kbps per transmission and 500MB of data per month).

Off by default, requires opting in to Community Finding

  • Location alerts that share your home's approximate and anonymized location with other users when they lose a Sidewalk-enabled device like a Tile tracker within range of your Sidewalk bridge, or vice versa.

Which Echo and Ring devices work as Sidewalk bridges?

Last year, Amazon shared that nearly every Echo speaker, including most previous-generation devices, would use Bluetooth LE to function as Sidewalk bridges. Now, in 2021, the company says that it has pared that list down.

"We realized some of the older generation Echo devices on the original list were not Sidewalk-compatible and so we corrected the list earlier this year," an Amazon spokesperson said.

For reference, here's the full, updated list of the devices that double as Sidewalk bridges, along with the protocols they'll support. So far, only the spherical, fourth-gen Amazon Echo, the Amazon Echo Show 10, the Ring Floodlight Cam and the wired Ring Spotlight Cam include 900MHz radios, which can connect with devices from up to a half-mile away. (BLE transmissions max out at about 100 meters.) At launch, the only Sidewalk-enabled devices that can connect with those 900MHz radios are wearable sensors from CareBand designed to track people living with dementia, but more should follow suit in the coming months.

That updated list leaves off some older-gen Echo devices that were originally said to be Sidewalk bridges -- namely, the second-gen Echo, the first- and second-gen Echo Dot and the first-gen Echo Show smart display. Per Amazon, none of those will function as Sidewalk bridges.

How to turn Amazon Sidewalk off

We've got full instructions for you here, but here's the summary:

1. To turn Sidewalk off (or to turn Community Finding on), open the Alexa app and tap the More icon at the bottom right.

2. Tap Settings > Account Settings > Amazon Sidewalk to find the main toggle for Amazon Sidewalk.

3. Tap Community Finding to find the second toggle for location sharing.