Picture yourself on a beach, walking along the shore. The sand is soft. With every step you take you leave behind a footprint, forming a long trail of impressions. Someone would have no trouble following you, though they’d have to hurry before the tide comes in to wipe away your trajectory.
You also leave footprints online: digital footprints, clues about who you are and what you do on the internet. The trouble is there are no “digital waves” that come along to wipe them away. In fact, your digital footprint never really disappears. Here’s what you need to know about managing your online presence.
What is a digital footprint?
A digital footprint—sometimes called a digital shadow—is the trail of data a user leaves online. It’s an unofficial and ever-growing record of your activity. It can include the websites you visit, emails you send, and information you submit. Your digital footprint suggests who you are online.
Digital footprints are made up of little bits of data, which can be easy or hard to find. Your social media profile pictures, for example, are easy to find. Your browsing history is harder to find. Anyone, or any company—without your authorization—can use these digital breadcrumbs to produce a portrait of you, your activities, and your interest online. This piecemeal profile is increasingly important in today’s digital economy.
Components of your digital footprints
You’ve likely left thousands of digital footprints across the web, some more obvious than others. You made some to get to this page. Here are some of the online activities that create data points you should protect:
- Your app and account activity. When logged into a website, your actions create data on that website and the wider web. Be careful when posting on social media; unless your account is private, anyone can access and save your posts. Logging into websites with your social media credentials allows the website to mine some of your social media data, such as your public profile, contacts, and email address.
- Your purchases and transactions. Many shopping sites keep track of your online purchases, sometimes even what you view or add to your cart. Thanks to third-party cookies, they can then share this information with other data brokers.
- Wherever you enter personal information. Anyone with your contact information, like your address or phone number, can potentially find you or reach you. Yet most internet users type their information into all kinds of websites.
- Your browser activity and history. Thanks to a network of third-party cookies—and, in some cases, even your browser itself—it’s possible for online services to know about every site you visit.
- Your search queries. Mainstream search engines and other search-enabled services, including maps, streaming services, and shopping sites, collect data including your IP address, location, what you searched for, and what you clicked on.
- Your location. Thanks to your IP address, your device’s location services may be used by apps to see your location. Device location can be used in value-add use cases, such as improving your local search results when searching “coffee near me.” However, default access to your specific location can lead to detailed timelines of every location you visit and how long you spend there, giving internet companies, like Google and Facebook more information than necessary. (In 2009, Google introduced a feature called Location History that provides a detailed timeline of every location you visit, including how long you spend at different locations and the exact date and time you were there, so long as you are signed in to your Google Account on that device.) Your active digital footprints can also—sometimes unintentionally—point to where you are. A photo posted to social media, for example, can reveal what city, or even what neighborhood you’re in.
- The media you consume. Streaming videos or music, subscribing to online news sources, publications, or blogs, and registering for newsletters all create footprints indicative of your interests.
Actively vs. passively created digital footprints
Your digital footprint grows every time you do anything online, whether you’re deliberately sharing your activity or doing something you believe is private, like browsing. In other words, you’re either actively or passively adding to your footprint. Here’s the difference:
- Active digital footprints. You create digital footprints when you willingly share information; e.g. posting on social media sites or forums, signing up for newsletters, filling out forms, or leaving reviews. And when you log into a website with a username or profile, anything you do on that website is tied to you, i.e. anything you do when you’re logged in creates active digital footprints.
- Passive digital footprints. You also unconsciously create digital footprints through your online activities thanks, most notably, to cookies. Cookies are small bits of data stored on your device that allow websites to recognize you without having to store your information on their own servers. Apps and websites can track your activity by installing cookies on your device to collect your IP address and browsing history, often without your knowledge.
Why is your digital footprint important?
While a large digital footprint comes with some advantages—it can help other users find you or your business, and social media influencers famously profit off their digital footprint—it tends to mostly have negative consequences on your privacy.
You have little say—and often little knowledge—about who can access your data and what they can do with it. You shouldn’t assume your internet activity is private. Your ISP, for example, can see much of the data you share and receive online. Once it’s publicly available—whether you choose for it to be public or not—it’s relatively permanent, and you have little control over what happens to it. Advertisers, employers and cybercriminals can all get access to varying degrees of your data.
First-order consequences: targeted ads
Your digital footprint is mainly used to sell you things. Everything you look at, search for, click, buy online—or even say near an internet connected device with a microphone—can be used to better understand your specific needs and wants. Data brokers use this information to serve you ads, some of which, as you might have noticed, are creepily accurate.
Cookies inform what’s called behavioral targeting, where ads are based on your browsing history. This practice isn’t confined to single sites. Third-party cookies, which come from sites other than the one you’re visiting, can track you across multiple domains to build a detailed picture of who you are, which is then sold to third-party data brokers for targeted ads or other purposes. This is also known as cross-site tracking.
Ads themselves can then generate more data by measuring what’s called return on investment (ROI). Unlike print ads or billboards, online ads instantaneously show advertisers a campaign’s performance data: how many users saw the ad, who clicked it, and who then acted on it. All of this further contributes to your digital footprint.
What happens online doesn’t always stay online. Digital footprints have real-life consequences. Because of the terms of service you agree to, for example, most of your data is technically obtained with your permission. But there are plenty of bad actors online who also want a piece of your digital footprint and they have no interest in getting your authorization. The outcome can be costly. Here’s what could happen if your information were to end up in the wrong hands:
- Compromised contact information. Seemingly harmless online activities, like shopping or social media, are tied to precious offline identifiers, like phone numbers or mailing addresses. Anyone, including sites or services you’ve never visited, can find and use these to reach you. And if a database containing your information is hacked, you’ve got little to no control over where your data ends up.
- Harmed reputation. Digital footprints can make or break not only online reputations, but offline reputations, too. Anything you post online, from words to photos, can be misinterpreted or altered, and can spread without your knowledge or consent, leading to real world consequences, like blackmailing or loss of employment.
- Influenced hiring or admission decisions. Employers and universities notoriously look up social media profiles before making hiring or admission decisions. Cyber-vetting is a cheap and easy way to assess potential candidates, and your online activities are telling. A positive digital footprint is a huge advantage.
- Vulnerability to cyberattacks. Social engineering—when an attacker tries to gain your trust to extract or to gain something valuable from you—is one of the main ways cyberattacks are carried out. Your digital footprint can provide key information an attacker needs to appear as a trustworthy source. The attacker might send you a phishing message referring to a recent purchase to steal your login credentials, or to install malware on your device.
- Identity theft. The internet’s vast information ecosystem makes identity theft easier than ever. If enough of your personal data falls into the wrong hands, it can easily be used to impersonate you.
How to manage your digital footprint
Your digital footprint is difficult—if not impossible—to fully manage. Everything you do or upload onto the internet has the potential to stay there forever. Even with the tightest privacy settings, you can’t be sure who has access to your personal information and what they do with it. But here’s how you can at least reduce your digital footprint:
- Turn off cookies, and use an anti-tracking browser or extension. You can clear cookies or change your cookie settings in your browser. You can also use a browser that automatically blocks third-party tracking cookies, like Safari or Firefox, or install a browser extension that blocks tracking cookies, like Privacy Badger or Cookie Cutter by Neeva.
- Limit voluntary data sharing. Be careful about what you share with online service providers, and who you share your information with. Ask yourself: Do I really need to share my email (or other information) with this site? Be especially careful when signing up for coupons or donating to charities.
- Consider what you post on social media. What you put on social media isn’t necessarily restricted to the people you’re close to. There’s no telling what a potential employer, for example, might be able to dig up down the line. And while it might not be your intention, your posts can reveal your location and other personal details. Most of the major platforms let you tweak your privacy settings; try to control who has access.
- Use a VPN. A virtual private network is a software tool that masks your public IP address and routes your data through an outside server so you can access the internet more privately. VPNs prevent your ISP, websites, advertisers, and governments from linking your online activities to you by applying strong encryption between you and the VPN. They can also prevent websites from installing third-party cookies, which helps shrink your passive digital footprint.
- Browse incognito. Browsing the web in incognito mode, or private mode (depending on your browser), means your browser automatically deletes your history and cookies when you close all of the incognito browser tabs.
- Don’t frequent unsafe websites. If a URL starts with ‘HTTP’ instead of ‘HTTPS’, you’re in the wrong place. HTTPS is an acronym for ‘HTTP Secure’, and means that the website has a security certificate. On most browsers a padlock icon appears on the left side of the address bar when you’re on a secure website. Never share personal information, especially payment details, on unsecured websites.
- Delete your old accounts. You probably have old internet accounts you no longer use. While you might think there’s no harm in leaving them active, your unused accounts still contribute to your digital footprint and can leave you susceptible to data breaches. Most sites make it possible to either deactivate or delete your account.
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