You would have probably come across this term quite often, and even if you haven’t, that is alright. In this article, we will not only go through what is a digital footprint but also cover the impact of digital footprints in your life, the importance of privacy, good practices, and the use of privacy tools to mitigate digital footprints.
What is a Digital Footprint: Meaning
Imagine you go out shopping, and while you are it, knowingly or unknowingly, you leave personal information of yourself at the shopping center. The owner/employees of that shopping center can use your private data to their benefit now. This is not ideal for you because this data can be misused or exploited.
Similarly, when browsing websites on the internet, you leave behind a data trail that can be used to trace your online activities back to you. These traceable digital activities on the internet that are unique to each internet user are called digital footprints. A digital footprint is sometimes also called a digital shadow.
A digital footprint can be classified into two types- active digital footprint and passive digital footprint.
Active digital footprint:
When users deliberately give out personal details about themselves on the internet, such a digital footprint is called an active digital footprint.
Usually, active digital footprints are caused to achieve a purpose by the user, such as logging into other websites with your social media credentials, connecting with friends on social media sites, and leaving an online review, to name a few.
Other active digital footprint examples include:
- Post pictures of yourself and unwarranted opinions on social media platforms.
- Viewing news articles on a news app
- Signing into an online news source
- Sending out emails to your coworker or professor
- Download a mobile banking app
- Buying and selling stocks
- Subscribing to a financial publication’s newsletter
- Reposting articles online
- Registering your details with a gym, subscribing to their supplements or blogs, etc.
Although these online activities are done intentionally, the users are still oblivious to the consequences of these digital footprints. While there is a positive digital footprint, this does not mean every active digital footprint is a positive digital footprint.
Passive digital footprint:
A passive footprint occurs when a user is unaware of their information and online activity being stored in an online database to track the user’s website behaviour. The websites store these passive digital footprints by installing cookies on your devices.
Online activities that contribute to a passive digital footprint include:
- Social media posts you engage with
- Apps and websites that use geolocation
- Making online purchases or even just browsing e-commerce websites and applications
- Using public wi-fi networks
- Browsing unsecured sites on the internet
This type of digital footprint can be dangerous to your sensitive data. Most of the time, users won’t even be aware of the complication they are dealing with, which can inadvertently contribute to their negative digital footprint.
The importance of privacy
As of 2022, around 63% of the world population has access to the internet, and of this 63%, over 93% have a social media presence (Statista).
Only recently, the need for internet privacy has been gaining much-needed attention and awareness among the average internet user. Previously, the concept of internet privacy was almost treated like fairies and unicorns. It was considered a myth.
Let us look at some stats related to data breaches and cyberattacks over the years to understand the importance of privacy:
- In 2020, a Twitter data breach involved 130 high-profile accounts, which included former US presidents, which resulted in scammers receiving bitcoins worth $121,000 across 400 transactions (CNBC).
- In 2019, around 540 million records of Facebook users were exposed on the Amazon cloud server publicly (CBS).
- Yahoo holds the record for the most number of compromised data records (3,000 million), followed by Aadhaar (1,100 million) as of January 2021 (Statista).
Our internet privacy and online data are not only at risk from cybercriminals but also from state institutions and other organizations for surveillance and tracking of user activities and their behaviour.
In 2013, Edward Snowden, a former computer intelligence consultant at Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and later a National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, revealed documents containing highly classified information about the National Security Agency to the world.
In the interview with journalists of The Guardian and The Washington Post, whistleblower Snowden disclosed that “they (NSA) are intent on making every conversation and every form of behaviour in the world known to them” (The Guardian).
These classified documents contained information about the breach of privacy of the country’s citizens and unethical mass domestic and global surveillance programs. They even revealed the phone tap of Germany’s now-former chancellor Angela Merkel (The Guardian).
This was one of the biggest leaks of top-secret documents ever. It also led to a revolution in internet privacy awareness among the general public.
In the same interview, when talking about the importance of the internet and basic privacy, Snowden stated, “I don’t want to live in a world where there is no privacy and therefore no room for intellectual exploration and creativity” (The Guardian).
Impact of digital footprint
Depending on how you spend your time on the internet, you create a digital footprint that, in turn, impacts not only your online reputation but sometimes even your personal life. To explain how our digital footprint affects us, we will divide them into negative and positive digital footprints.
Negative Digital Footprint:
When you engage with a controversial post on social media, spew hate comments, the social groups you associate with, or post profanity online, you are contributing to your negative digital footprint. These negative footprints can be more damaging than you imagine. It can result in consequences like:
- Losing good job opportunities. With the help of simple search engines like Google, potential employers can access your digital footprints and screen you based on them. In 2018, when a young girl who managed to acquire an internship at NASA took to Twitter to share this news with her followers, which included the use of the F-word and also later unknowingly berated a top NASA employee resulted in her internship getting revoked by NASA (The Indian Express).
- Ruin personal relationships. Suppose your significant other know you are still more or less active on the dating site; it will certainly affect your relationship.
- You endanger your data and safety when you search for obscene phrases, indulge in explicit content online, or browse unsafe websites.
Positive Digital Footprint:
While it is not entirely possible to control our digital footprints online, what we do have in our control is to reduce the negative footprints and increase the positive ones. Let us look at some ways to grow your positive digital footprint:
- Be wary of what you post online. Engage in posting more about your interests and hobbies, if at all. For example, creating a portfolio of write-ups or blogs that covers various topics.
- Avoid oversharing about yourself to random strangers online.
- Avoid using your phone numbers or primary email for signing in to social media accounts or even subscribing to your favorite magazines or financial publications.
- Engage with content that is useful to the general public. For example, sharing a video of “Four Reasons To Care About Your Digital Footprint.”
A positive digital footprint can significantly improve the lives of people online as well as offline. A good example is social media influencers, who have built a career out of this.
Practices and tools to mitigate digital footprints
Above we looked through the many ways our digital footprint grows. There are certain practices and tools you can utilize that will help you stay safe online, and to an extent avoid your online activities and behaviour from being tracked.
1. Search for yourself online:
This may sound facile, but making sure how your name shows up on search results is important as it gives you an idea of the information that is readily available to any digital native, and then accordingly manage it.
2. Regulating social networking:
If you have multiple social media accounts, you might want to consider limiting them unless extremely necessary. Delete the old accounts that are lying dormant. Social media sites allow digital tracing data, which means your interests, people you associate with, location, etc. can be easily extracted without your knowledge. Avoid filling out any online form that asks for your details.
3. Use incognito to browse:
Incognito is a private browsing mode that disables cookies and avoids storing your search results in your history. It is available in any standard browser. For example, if you browse sneakers without incognito the trackers from the browser can analyze your behavior and target you with further ads related to sneakers. Using incognito disables this.
4. Using tracker and ad blockers for mobile and PC:
In some instances, incognito cannot be all that helpful in blocking trackers; for these situations, there are reliable blockers that will keep you safe from these trackers. Dependable blockers that you can use:
- For PC- uBlock Origin (browser extension used for general purpose blocking)
- For mobile- Blokada (blocks ads and trackers)
5. Use VPN:
VPN is a virtual private network that helps you remain private online by establishing a secure encrypted connection between your device and the web network. VPNs also help you access to content that is restricted based on geolocations. While free VPNs are available, they only protect you on the internet to a certain extent, while the rest are simply honeypots for your data. It is recommended to use paid VPNs for truly reliable protection. But there are a few reputed free VPNs you can check out:
- Proto VPN
- Opera VPN
6. Tor Browser:
The Onion Router or Tor as it is popularly known is a browser that lets you securely browse websites and communicate privately while remaining anonymous. Initially, it was developed for the US navy intelligence agents but the functioning of Tor works in such a way that the more people use it the more secure you are.
7. Update your software:
Cybercriminals can easily access victims’ devices and data by exploiting vulnerabilities in outdated software, therefore ensuring that the software you use is up to date.
8. Proactive measures:
If you think your data might have been compromised, take action immediately. Maintain a reliable and secure password keeper so you can access all your sensitive data and password details in one place.
I recommend using Bitwarden, which saves your data in a secure cloud and can be accessed from your phone or PC; it also has a user-friendly UI that makes it easier to organize your passwords.
9. Check your browser privacy setting:
Always ensure that the privacy settings on your browser are enabled. Always disable or delete the cookies after you have finished browsing. Most browsers have the in-built setting to automatically delete cookies after you have closed the browser. Only accept cookies from websites you trust.
10. Maintain good data hygiene:
You should practice good data hygiene by periodically reviewing your financial statements and medical records. Some offenders obtain medical treatment in someone else’s name, and their medical records can be intertwined with yours.
We have seen that a digital footprint can give a good outlook on an individual’s life, and this outlook depending on how others perceive it, can affect the individual’s social and personal life.
While it is impossible to perish off these digital footprints, we can work towards minimizing their negative impacts with the help of the practices and tools we discussed above.
There are many cyber criminals out there who can use your data adversely. Nobody vocalized the repercussions better than the Dunder Mifflin employee, Dwight K. Schrute–
“Identity theft is not a joke, Jim! Millions of families suffer every year!”