What Is a Digital Footprint and What Can You Do About It?

What Is a Digital Footprint and What Can You Do About It?

We make use of the internet for various reasons such as looking for information, connecting with our peers, or entertain ourselves. What you might not realize is the internet is also looking back at us.

With each of our online action, we leave something behind which contributes to creating a detailed profile of who we are online. This profile, also known as a digital footprint, helps companies display specific advertisements and employers to check your background.

It's important to understand how your digital footprint relates to your privacy and safety and how you can manage it.

What is a digital footprint

Simply put, the digital footprint is the trail you leave behind when accessing the internet. It includes everything you do online - your browsing history, the personal information you provide to online services, your social media activity, the emails you send, and so on.

While the digital footprint has its advantages such as a personalized online journey, getting relevant recommendations based on your likings, being able to quickly retrieve personal information, and making it easier for recruiters job candidates, it can also lead to unwanted outcomes which we will cover in a bit.

The digital footprint is divided into two main categories - passive digital footprint and active digital footprint.

Types of digital footprints

Passive digital footprint

The passive digital footprint refers to the data you might not even be aware is being tracked and have limited control over. This data includes your browsing history, web searches, cookies stored on your device that allow advertisers to track you across all websites, the devices you're using, your IP address and location, information about your internet service provider, online purchases, and so on.

Active digital footprint

The active digital footprint refers to the traces you leave intentionally. It includes social media activity such as sending a tweet, uploading a photo, updating your status, liking a Facebook post, commenting on social media or forums, uploading a blog post, sending emails and messages.

Why care about your digital footprint?

It's not uncommon to hear "If I don't have nothing to hide, why should I care about my digital footprint?". There are more reasons why you should care about the trail you live being in the digital world, and here are the main ones.

Your digital footprint builds a detailed picture of your online habits

You might not realize this, but your digital habits have commercial value for advertisers and merchants. Organizations, with which you have no relation to and which you can't control, make their best to monetize your digital footprint. Because of cookies, websites are able to track everything you do online, and this gives them the knowledge about all your likings and purchases.

Your digital footprint affects your reputation

Reputation is the belief other people held about you. And in the digital world, it might be harder to get control of because your actions can be taken out of context. If, for example, you search for "how to dissolve a body in acid", third-parties who track your browsing history might get the wrong impression that you are up to no good, even though you were just researching information for a new article you're writing.

Not to mention that everything you post on social media platforms, blogs, or forums is accessible to everyone. This means employers can look you up before giving you the job and find lots of information about you. Depending on your digital footprint, what they find can be either positive which will place you in a good light, or negative, which will make employers question if you're the right man for the job.

You don't have total control on how your information is shared

While you might not have anything against some of your online activities being shared with different companies, there is information you might not feel comfortable sharing with everyone. For example, you are perhaps comfortable with sharing medical aspects with your family, but would you want that information to reach your employer? Probably not. And the bad news is you have no control over how your online information is spreading. You are not able to tell tracking systems "track this, but don't track that", or to manage who gets to hold that data without using specific tools (which we will talk about in a minute).

Your digital footprint is also shared with governments and law enforcement. Tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft are handing over user data to the government, and so do various apps you might be using.

Your digital footprint can cause financial loss

Identity theft and other online fraudulent attacks are a real danger, and such occurrences keep on rising. Digital footprints being concentrated in huge databases gives cybercriminals the possibility of getting hold of a great number of user information. If a company which stores such data becomes the victim of a data breach, the attackers can use the stolen information to deploy attacks on the users. Depending on the nature of the information, they can get access to users accounts or credit cards, conduct phishing attacks, and even impersonate users to perform fraudulent activities such as opening lines of credit or in the victim's name, opening bank accounts or applying for loans.

Steps to manage your digital footprint

When you are mindlessly browsing the internet, you have no control over who tracks your online activities and where your personal information is going. But there are actions you can take in order to manage the amount of data that's being collected and also influence your digital footprint for a great online reputation.

#1. Build a positive reputation

Employers, friends, colleagues - basically anyone is able to look you up and see your online reputation. While you won't be able to completely avoid creating a digital footprint, you might as well make sure the footprints you leave are positive ones. From now on, be mindful when posting something online and stay away from negative posts and comments, un-tag yourself from social media posts that put you in a questionable light, and try sharing things that will make employers and other people think highly about you.

#2. Google yourself

We're using lots of online accounts such as social media, forums, comments, and more. These create a digital footprint that anyone is able to see. You might've left comments in the past you don't even remember and they might not portray you to the world in the way you want.

Google your name and try finding the places where you left traces behind. If you're not happy with what you find, take down the content or contact the site if it's not in your power. Even better, try using multiple search engines to dog deeper into your digital footprint.

#3. Review privacy settings

Web browsers, social media sites, and other online services allow you to control the privacy of your content and personal information to a great extent. Even if won't be able to completely stop tracking, by managing the privacy settings you'll limit the data contributing to your digital footprint. For example, you can stop Google from keeping a record of your online purchases or locations (it does this by default if you never disabled those options).

Go on your web browser, Facebook, Instagram, Google account and review the privacy settings on all of them. Give yourself some time to carefully go through them as they are more complex than you might think.

#4. Keep a record of your accounts

You probably have lots of accounts where you've given personal information such as your name, contact details, age, and preferences. Just think about it, social media accounts, shopping platforms, apps. And a lot of times, you sign up for an account only to abandon it and never use it again.

There's no reason to keep unused accounts, they just contribute to your digital footprint. Track down all the accounts you've created and get rid of those you're not using anymore. And make a habit of keeping a record of all the accounts you're creating so it's easy to manage them in the future.

#5. Manage your passwords right

While this is more of a security enclined step, it's important not jumping over it. Create complex passwords consisting of letters, numbers, and special characters. Don't use the same password twice. And use a password manger to easily remember all the different passwords.

#6. Avoid oversharing

Nothing negatively impacts your digital footprint as oversharing things you don't want the whole world knowing about. Through oversharing, you're not only building a negative online reputation, but you're also subjecting yourself to great online risks such as phishing attacks. Keep habits such as sharing private photos, full names, addresses, location, your mood, and so on to a minimum.

#7. Pay attention to Terms and Conditions

I know you're probably agreeing to the Terms and Conditions without holding your breath, we're all guilty of this. And by this, we give services access to lots of personal information, and we have no idea about what we allow them to use this data for.

Even if you don't start reading everything that's in the Terms and Conditions word by word, try skiming through them a bit so you at least get an idea of what you agree to. You can install the Terms of Service; Didn't Read add-on to your browser and it will show you a summary of the terms on all major websites.

#8. Use an anonymous email

It's best to have a secondary, even anonymous email address so you can use for quick signups. Not every platform or service is trustworthy for providing your personal data to, and having an anonymous email will be a security measure against malicious services.

Tutanota is one of the email service providers that allow you to create an anonymous email.

#9. Be aware that once online, always online

Everything you're uploading on the internet, be it an image, a comment, or sending a message, it's there forever. You indeed can, for example, delete the photos from your profile, but there's no guarantee they won't show up anywhere else, ever. Before you upload something online, ask yourself "I'm ok with this being accessible to people in the future?".

#10. Use tools to manage your digital footprint

There are digital tools that can help limit the amount of data contributing to your digital footprint. For example, you can use DuckDuckGo or the Tor browser for searches you want to remain private or use a VPN service to get more online privacy.

How a VPN helps you keep your digital footprint safe

Using a VPN service creates a barrier between your real life identity and your online activity.

The VPN routes all your internet traffic through a remote server. You install the VPN client and choose a remote server to connect through. There are usually thousands of locations you can choose from. Let's say you're in Belgium and chose to connect to a server located in the US. When you'll access a website, the website will see the connection as coming from the US, having no idea who is really behind the request. Your online activity is also encrypted, making your private data unreadable to others. Neither your ISP (Internet Service Provider) isn't able to track your online activity while you are connected to the VPN, everything that's going on behind the VPN server being private.

Keep in mind that if you want to become anonymous online, you have to avoid login-based platforms as they will give away your identity.

VPNs hide your IP address and encrypt your internet traffic, giving you online privacy and anonymity. The DrSoft VPN is a reliable service that can help you secure your private information and manage your digital footprint.

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