Detectives look for footprints and fingerprints because they’re instant proof of where someone’s been, what they touched, and where they’re headed. The concept holds online, too.
Your digital footprint is a map of where you (and your devices) have been, what you do online, how you behave, and where you’re probably headed next in the cyber sphere.
In this article, we explain what digital footprints are and why it’s so important to protect your digital reach online.
What is a Digital Footprint?
Simply put, a digital footprint is a phrase people use to describe an individual’s recorded online or mobile device actions. It’s a record of your cyber presence, online behavior, and web preferences. Think of it as your digital shadow.
Most people know that websites record our actions on the internet. Social media platforms remember and display our “likes,” comments, and uploads. Email services store our emails and our contacts. E-commerce sites know what purchases we’ve made—and remember ones we didn’t.
Many search engines store the search terms you enter and know where you click most. This data trail is unique to you. It’s your “digital footprint.”
Four Types of Digital Footprint
You don’t leave every digital trace on purpose. Sometimes you leave information unknowingly. Here are the four main types of digital footprints and how they differ.
When you purposely perform an action, place information online, or accept browser cookies, you contribute to your active digital footprint.
It includes the profile photos and videos you upload to social media, the comments you leave on other people’s posts, and actions you perform when you’re logged into apps and websites—from product reviews to purchases and “likes.”
Your passive digital footprint builds up without your knowledge. Lots of websites store statistical information about you behind the scenes.
Social media sites and online shops, for instance, register your IP address and know how frequently you visit and what you’re looking for. Depending on your smartphone settings, some services even know where you are in physical space.
A private digital footprint consists of information that only some people can access. For example, if you belong to a private chat group, there will be a record of text messages, but only you and the other members can access them.
Your public digital footprint is all the information you’ve posted on public forums. Anyone can find it. This data includes your name, photos, profile information on social media and other websites, and public comments.
Depending on your social media settings, social networks are also public platforms that make the connections you maintain and the accounts you follow visible.
Why is Your Digital Footprint Important?
In the old days, people advertised their businesses with signs above their doorways. Even though this practice continues today, we now also have the internet to hang our shingles on. Professionals and organizations build and use their online presence to network, show their skills, get jobs, meet people, and share opinions.
Digital footprints have become so embedded in our lives that they are now a factor in determining our legal admissibility into different countries.
Most US visa applicants are now required to list social media handles, and some developed countries are also watching social media platforms to watch for disparities in the visa hopeful’s information.
Our digital footprints are more than personal expressions. Businesses use them to shape our experience on the web. Websites use them to pre-select our language preferences. Marketers use them to show us relevant content and make appropriate product and service recommendations.
5 Examples of Digital Footprints
The following are the most common online gathering places and storehouses for your digital footprint.
- Browsers: Data is shared between your preferred browsers and the websites you visit. The objective is usually to tailor the website for you, but other parties can obtain and leverage that data in different ways.
- Trackers: Any app that measures and tracks your daily activities—from fitness and health platforms to mapping services, library and reading apps, and timers—generates information and expands your digital footprint.
- Social media websites: Social media platforms are where many people actively cultivate their digital footprints. Some services try to expand that footprint by asking you to log in to third-party websites using your social media credentials.
- Shopping sites: Creating store accounts and making online purchases leaves a digital footprint of items you prefer, amounts you spend, and brands you support. That footprint might also include financial information, such as credit card or banking data.
- Emails and texts: The emails and texts you send and receive form part of your digital footprint. Much like a diary of your life, your collected digital writings are a treasure trove of information about you.
Each online interaction, from browsing to shopping, shapes our digital footprint. Protecting and understanding this trail is key to navigating the digital world safely.
What are the Cyber Security Risks of Digital Footprints?
The internet has an endless capacity for memory, and every website you engage with knows something about you. That’s why it’s virtually impossible to eliminate your digital footprint once it’s out there.
The best way to minimize your digital footprint? Go offline. That’s near impossible for most people, given how much our social and working lives rely on digital platforms and services.
At the same time, being aware of the information you’re sharing and conscious of your online activity can help you manage the size and spread of your digital footprint.
How to Delete Your Digital Footprint
The internet has endless capacity for memory and every website you engage with knows something about you. That’s why it’s virtually impossible to eliminate your digital footprint once it’s out there.
The best way to minimize your digital footprint? Go offline. For most people, that’s near impossible these days given how much of our social and working lives rely on digital platforms and services.
At the same time, just being aware of the information you’re sharing and conscious of your online activity can help you manage the size and spread of your digital footprint.
How to Protect Your Digital Footprint
It might be impossible to eliminate your digital footprint, but you can take steps to rein it in and limit further growth. Here are some tips for diminishing your online presence:
- Review the privacy settings for your apps and adjust them for minimal data sharing.
- Turn off location sharing when you’re not using it and in apps where it’s unnecessary.
- If you can’t delete, minimize the data you share on social media, shopping platforms, online services, and subscriptions.
- Delete browser cookies regularly; when a website asks you to accept cookies, reject them.
- Search your name online to learn what information your public digital footprint contains; remove information where you can, or ask website administrators to remove it.
- Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to hide your IP address.
You can manage your digital footprint by taking simple proactive steps like adjusting privacy settings and utilizing VPNs, you can significantly reduce your online visibility and safeguard your personal data.
Digital Footprint Awareness Through Security Training
There is almost no dividing line between what an individual does online and what they do as an employee.
To a cyber attacker, a digital footprint is a source of valuable data for use in attacks. They might use that information to attack that single individual personally or use that information to bring harm to the organization they work for or another organization in their orbit.
Cyber security awareness training helps reduce this risk by informing employees of their digital footprints and demonstrating the benefits and drawbacks. It teaches users how to manage and protect their digital footprints—for their and their employers’ safety.
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