The internet is forever. Have you ever wondered about what breadcrumbs you leave behind there? Whether you have or haven’t, I’m here to explain what a digital footprint is and why it is important.
What is a digital footprint?
A digital footprint is the trail of data you leave when you use the web. Any websites you visit, emails you send, or personal data you share is part of that digital footprint. Advertisers can use this to find out your preferences and show you targeted ads.
There are two main types of digital footprints you could have:
- An active digital footprint is what you choose to do yourself. The things you post online, the comments you leave on Facebook. If you’ve signed up for any newsletters, they’re part of your digital footprint too.
- A passive digital footprint is what gets collected without warning. Websites apply “cookies” whenever you enter them. They may track how many times you’ve visited them, your primary device, or what your IP was when you opened them.
Why is your digital footprint important?
Once your information is out there, it’s hard to get it back. If you’ve ever tried looking yourself up online, you might have decided that there’s nothing there you care about hiding. You’re not embarrassed about your old One Direction fan page – it’s part of you. But have you considered what your potential employer would think?
What if strangers saved and re-posted the personal information you wanted to share with friends and family? Or something you did at the age of fifteen went viral and painted you in a bad light? It’s all part of your reputation.
But reputation isn’t all there is when it comes to caring about your digital footprint. Cybercriminals could use your digital footprint to impersonate you online or enact phishing attacks against you or people close to you. The services that hold your personal information could always suffer a data breach which would, in turn, leave your sensitive data exposed.
Digital footprint examples
Posting on social media seems like a pretty obvious way to leave a footprint, but there are many different ways you are leaving traces of yourself online. Here are some examples of digital footprints that are so common you might have never thought about them.
Signing up for any store newsletters for discounts
Dating apps that show you people near you
Subscribing to an online news source
Social media sites or apps that ask you to tag your whereabouts
Using social media accounts to subscribe or log in to other services
Fitness apps that track your runs
Opening an account for your credit card
All of the examples above ask for data that is then collected and forms a digital profile on you. Your name, email, location, anything you share, or even your shopping preferences.
How can you protect your digital footprint?
There’s no way to completely delete your digital footprint, but there are measures you can take to protect or minimize it.
Check your privacy settings
Privacy settings allow you to control who sees your posts. Take a look at them and make sure you only share your personal data with people you trust. If there are sites that store your personal information that do not have the option to change privacy settings, like real estate websites, you can always contact them to have the information removed.
Limit the amount of data you share
Whether it’s a newsletter you’ve decided to sign up for with your email or a post on social media you want to share with friends, think twice before pressing submit. This will help create a positive digital footprint that only contains information you want to share.
Avoid untrusted websites
Before submitting any personal information, ask yourself – do I trust this website? If the answer is no, consider whether you want it to be in charge of protecting your data. With that, remember that if you use any main accounts (like Facebook) to log in to other websites, those websites now have access to the data you shared on those main accounts.
Delete old accounts
Deleting old accounts that you no longer use is a great way to minimize your digital footprint and gives you more control of the information you share. If you prefer hiding your photo albums from school, you might also want to hide the accounts you posted the same pictures on.
Stay alert on public Wi-fi
Be mindful. Avoid public Wi-fi as you never know how secure it is and who might have access to the data you send over it. If you need to send personal information, switch to mobile data to do it.
Keep software updated
Remember that outdated software often misses out on the latest security patches. Older systems are also often easier to hack. Therefore, making sure your software is updated will also help protect your personal information.
Use a VPN
VPNs hide your data by encrypting it with a VPN server. Imagine wrapping a gift so no one could see what it is – a VPN acts as the wrapping paper in this metaphor. Not to mention, it also changes your digital location, aka IP address. This way, websites cannot track you or your information according to your IP because it’s changed.
Protect your digital footprint
Although to avoid a digital footprint completely you’d have to stop using the internet and become a hermit, it’s important to know why and how to hide it. If you look yourself up right now, would the information you find satisfy you or make you mortified? What about the data that gets collected passively and you can’t even find by simply looking yourself up? No matter your answer, it’s better to be safe than sorry. That’s why securing your personal information should be the first thing on your mind, and you can do that with the help of a VPN.