What is a digital footprint?
A digital footprint is the trail of data created by a person’s online activity. These activities include things like searching the Web, visiting social media, and online shopping, along with less obvious data sources like physical location or website visits. Businesses collect, trade, and analyze digital footprint data, and use this data to create profiles of people (often, though not always, for the purposes of targeted advertising).
Whenever you use the Internet, you leave a footprint that indicates where you were (online or in the real world), and sometimes what you did; this data can often be tied to who you are. The data that makes up your digital footprint is gathered from every device you use—computer, phone, tablet, even health trackers like a smartwatch. The source may also be a borrowed or public device where you’ve logged into an online account (e.g. email or social media). Digital footprints are the core commodity of the surveillance economy.
Elements of a digital footprint
As you use the Internet, you leave two types of footprints—active and passive. These combine with footprints left from previous online activity to create an overall digital footprint, which grows and evolves over time.
An active footprint is left anytime you provide information or take some specific action online. When you create content (e.g. post a social media update or restaurant review), subscribe to newsletters or promotional emails (e.g. checking a “Yes, send me your newsletter” box), follow someone on social media, or log into your bank account, these actions are recorded as an “active” footprint.
A passive footprint, by contrast, is a less obvious instance of data collection. If you browse items on an e-commerce site, read a news article, or check your weather app for the forecast, you’ve left a passive footprint. Your physical location can also be a passive footprint (e.g. on a mapping app that offers the quickest route, or a smartwatch that tracks your morning run). In most cases, a passive footprint won’t feel like you’ve done anything to leave an information trail. But if you were online, trackers were still collecting information.
Your digital footprint, then, is the accumulation of these active and passive interactions. Once a footprint is created, it’s generally considered permanent. It can be very difficult to have this data altered or removed, and an individual has almost no control over who has access to the footprint or how it gets used.
How do digital footprints become a profile?
Many online businesses collect digital footprints, from Big Tech companies like Google, to myriad smaller companies associated with the surveillance economy. While any one site may not collect enough info for a full footprint, together these businesses can collect enough to create very rich profiles, and will profit by selling data to third parties. These third-party data brokers amass vast amounts of data, process it, and build surprisingly accurate profiles of people. Profiles that can in turn be sold to other businesses.
Digital footprints are collected directly from your device with the help of different tracking tools, including browser-based trackers like cookies and fingerprinting. Data collectors also mine databases of users’ activities. By seeking unique identifiers—such as an email address, social media handle, home address, phone number, geo-location, or device IP address—data collectors can connect data found in otherwise unconnected databases, and build a surprisingly comprehensive profile.
How are digital footprints used?
Digital footprints are referenced in different ways for different purposes:
- Businesses use the profiles created from digital footprints to improve their advertising efforts, for instance by showing highly targeted ads on the websites you visit. The more detailed the footprint, the more effective (i.e. personalized) an ad campaign will be.
- Potential employers, and other interested parties such as landlords and colleges, can review your online presence as part of their vetting process. For example, they may use your social media accounts as de facto character references.
- Police may use social media profiles and other online activity as viable sources of information in an investigation.
- Malicious actors may use the personal info in your digital footprint for phishing or other social engineering scams, or even to hack into your accounts.
The importance of managing digital footprints
Your digital footprint leaves tons of personal data floating around the Internet, often with very little protection; it can also create an unfavorable character reflection. In both cases, it’s important to be as cautious and proactive as possible when leaving footprints—a negative digital footprint could lead to anything from a lost job to a missed housing opportunity to identity theft, and more. You can also take measures to reduce the overall size of your digital footprint, thereby leaving less data for others to use.
Note that—at least when considering footprints as character profiles—a well-managed footprint can also be beneficial (e.g. it can help a person secure a new job, a social media influencer get new sponsorships, or a restaurant with positive reviews get new reservations). Reputation management services can help both individuals and companies manage and protect their online presence.
How to monitor and control your digital footprint
It can be near impossible to delete “public” data, or to repair an unfavorable online reputation. The best approach to managing your digital footprint is to exercise care at the outset: Keep your footprint as small as possible, and don’t leave footprints that could reflect negatively on you. Some steps you can take include:
- Take a moment to consider the possible outcome before providing personal info to a website or app that’s likely collecting your data.
- Don’t post content on social media—or like, comment on, or share content that others have posted—if it could count against you later.
- Use social media privacy settings to control who sees your posts.
- Only allow phone apps to track your location when completely necessary. Actively manage what data is tracked and shared by apps like health monitors and home device controllers.
- Consider maintaining separate personal and professional emails or online profiles. This will help keep your personal footprint from showing up with your professional profile, and vice versa.
- Don’t use a third-party login to access a website. When you use your Google or Facebook credentials to log into something that isn’t Google or Facebook, you’re providing data collectors with another link to build your profile.
- Practice good online habits like rejecting cookies, using browser settings to minimize trackers, and using a VPN. A privacy-first browser like Brave makes all these precautions much easier.
There are some things you can do to monitor and possibly improve your existing footprint:
- Delete subscriptions and social media accounts you no longer use.
- Run a search on yourself occasionally to keep track of your digital presence, how it’s changing, and note if something unusual has happened. Set up alerts to let you know if something new appears.
- If you find undesirable information about yourself, submit a request with the website owner to remove the data from public view. Depending on where you live, there may be laws in place (such as GDPR and CCPA) that require a website owner to honor a request to delete data, which thus reduces the size of your digital footprint, and overall can reduce risk.
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