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No, you're not sharing your WiFi with everyone. Why experts say Amazon Sidewalk shouldn't worry you

Posted at 5:10 PM, Jun 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-08 19:25:25-04

(WXYZ) —

What is Amazon Sidewalk? Well, before we break it down, let's talk about what it isn't.

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When you hear "the Sidewalk is a connected network available to neighbors or others nearby," you may think you're sharing far too much with people outside of your home, but that's simply not the case, according to experts.

"First of all, I think it's important to know exactly what it is, some people think that, 'oh, great, this means that I'm sharing my Wi-Fi with everyone.' And the answer is, you're not, it is not broadcasting a public high bandwidth Wi-Fi signal. Comcast and AT&T already tried that with their systems, that when you've got their routers put in, they broadcast a public hotspot out there. So ... that's what people are thinking Sidewalk is. But it's not, it's really an extension of a very small part of the bandwidth that exists for specific devices, things like your Tile trackers, your Echo, your Ring, things like that, which is to try to help extend their ranges. So that Tile tracker you bought, which I have a bunch of them, they're great. And it helps me find my keys in my house will now also work if I lose them out on the street somewhere," said Ned Staebler, TechTown Detroit's president and CEO.

But you have a right to question and there is always a risk, but Staebler says it's pretty minimal.

"Don’t get me wrong, whenever you open up your network, you create another access point, but it’s not a very common access point," said Staebler.

The more people on your block that contribute to the Sidewalk, the stronger the community network becomes. It is also meant to strengthen weak spots in your own yard.

"Potentially you won't need that extra extender for your Ring," said Staebler.

On Facebook some of you expressed concerns about the Sidewalk. One commenter says: “We have data limits which requires hefty overage charges.”

Amazon says the monthly data used from each customer is capped at 500MB, which is equivalent to a 10 minute streaming video; it’s most effective when many people are contributing.

You can choose not to contribute by going to the Amazon Alexa app, clicking settings, account settings, Amazon Sidewalk, and then scrolling down and toggling to disable.

While your devices are automatically opted in to contribute to this community network, in order to find your dog or make sure the signal to your garage is more consistently strong, you have to opt in and register your specific device with Amazon.

Another Facebook commenter asks, “So what are they doing to make sure it is secure? How do you know if someone borrows your network and does malicious things?”

According to Amazon, you won’t know who is using the network. You also wont know who is contributing to the network, that is part of Amazon security protocol. Amazon says only limited devices can connect.

Amazon says the data transmitted is minimal:

- to authenticate a Sidewalk compatible device
- to ensure size of data doesn't exceed bandwidth
- to ensure the correct command goes to the correct device
- for example commands to turn a light on or off, to view an outdoor security camera

Amazon says no one party can see all the data:

- the person contributing to the Sidewalk can not see who is using the sidewalk or access any device other than their own
- the person utilizing the Sidewalks network can not see who contributes to the network or any devices using the
network other than their own
- the server ensures the device is registered and authenticated
- the server ensures the proper command goes to the proper device, but does not see any info about the owner of the
device

And what about the concern over data law enforcement might be able to access via subpoena? Amazon has this to say on that point:

"Amazon knows customers care deeply about privacy and data security. We optimize our work to get the issues right for customers. Amazon does not disclose customer information in response to government demands unless we’re required to do so to comply with a legally valid and binding order. We routinely object to overly broad requests by law enforcement. Our data minimization policies and encryption policies reduce the scope and usefulness of data that we would be able to produce if legally required."

Staebler says you'll have to weigh the convenience with the risk. At this point, he doesn't believe the Sidewalk offers much value for criminals.

"If they really wanted to hack your system, they probably wouldn’t start with this one, they would probably start with your WiFi or spoof your phone or your email," said Staebler.

He says encrypting your WiFi is your best line of defense, otherwise a potential hacker could gain access to not only your connected devices but other sensitive information.

If you want to read more about Amazon Sidewalk's security and privacy, check out the paper below:

Final Privacy Security Whitepaper by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd