Amazon Sidewalk – A Step Too Far in Wide-Area Networks

16-06-2021 |   |  By Robin Mitchell

Recently, Amazon announced its development of a new network system called “Sidewalk” that can help to connect devices more reliably to the internet. What is “sidewalk”, why is it a complete disaster for connection systems, and what technologies would provide better coverage?

What is Amazon Sidewalk?

When it comes to creating a wireless network at home, users only have one option; Wi-Fi. While Wi-Fi offers users a low-cost wireless solution, it is not the easiest system to deploy. One of the biggest challenges faced with Wi-Fi is its inability to penetrate walls and ceilings making Wi-Fi coverage in many houses unreliable. This further creates problems with homes that deploy various IoT devices such as cameras and sensors which may not provide a reliable service.

One solution to this is to use mesh networks that can combine all Wi-Fi routers into a single network. Devices can easily move from one area to another and the use of multiple routers helps to improve Wi-Fi coverage. However, this coverage is limited to the inside of the home and as soon as devices are placed outside, they are already at the edge of the network. 

For devices such as tracking chips, this can mean that keys and phones are hard to locate when outside the home, and this can be even more problematic if the lost device is beyond the surrounding grounds (i.e. in a shop, park, or street).

Amazon believes it has the answer to this in the form of their new shared network called “Sidewalk”. Simply put, Amazon devices (such as the Amazon Echo) can share a portion of their internet connection with the greater world so that any other Amazon device can connect to it and report its location. The use of such networks also allows for remote devices (such as cameras and sensors), to use a portion of a neighbouring network to improve its reliability. 


Why Amazon Sidewalk is a massive step backwards

When Amazon announced their idea of a shared network, it did not take long for customers and tech experts to jump from their seats and raise concerns over such networks. 

The first point of concern is the usage of others internet services. Unless an individual lives in a busy metropolitan area, many people have internet speeds that often struggle to meet their everyday demands. Those in more rural areas relying on phone-line broadband can often see speeds as low as 250KB/s which is barely enough to stream video. According to Amazon, their sidewalk system would only take up to 80KB/s of internet speed, but this is far too much for many. 

The sharing of internet services goes on to upset ISPs who often discourage or disallow sharing of internet services. If users use such sharing systems, it makes it harder for ISPs to determine who is using their internet connection. While this may seem irrelevant, it becomes very relevant when considering the third issue with “sidewalk”.

Sidewalk claims to be private by nature, and that users have nothing to worry about. In fact, “sidewalk” is so private that devices that connect to a sidewalk network cannot be identified. While this may seem like a positive, it can potentially cause a headache for ISPs and law enforcement. If hacked, a sidewalk device could be used to access illicit content, and such site access would be recorded under the owner of the internet service contract. The inability to identify the user makes it difficult for law enforcement to track down criminals and can land sidewalk network sharers in hot water.

The last, and arguably most important concern, is that a shared network literately creates an open public network where any device can connect to it. The sidewalk network may incorporate its own encryption and protection methods, but that does not foolproof the system. A simple buffer overflow attack could be the only mechanism needed by an attacker to gain entry to the network and use it for whatever purpose they see fit. 

What solutions are more practical?

When it comes to widespread coverage the most appropriate network technology for tracking would be cellular. Cellular networks are almost always available (even countryside areas can have 4G access), and such networks can simultaneously handle many devices. Such networks also incorporate an authentication system to ensure that only paying customers can access the network (while “sidewalk” has a public network).

The use of cellular networks in IoT and smart systems is further supported by ESIMs (electronic SIM cards). These tiny chips essentially remove the need for a SIM card and a SIM holder which are cumbersome, and their potentially low price makes them easy to mass-produce

The idea of creating a shared network that can help neighbouring devices is noble and has good intentions, but it will clearly be abused as soon as hackers find weaknesses in the system. 


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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.

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