How to reduce and control your digital footprint?
A digital footprint refers to data we leave behind after going online. On the surface level, it covers all the details we submit or disclose deliberately. Your social media account is an accurate representation, containing personal information and life events you chose to share. However, your digital footprint holds more than the data you reveal consciously.
What is a digital footprint?
A digital footprint is a general term for all the traces you cast off when browsing. Essentially, it refers to data about us, our actions, preferences, interests, or browsing routes. Typically, we tend to exclusively focus on the details we can easily see and recall sharing. For instance, a comment on YouTube is a visible example that you can find and control relatively quickly. However, a digital footprint also consists of information you hand over without even realizing it.
Essentially, such information is a byproduct of each action we take in the digital world. Thus, it ends up as a component of our digital footprint without our deliberate consent or knowledge.
Thus, every digital step you take leaves an invisible trail leading back to you. Such continuous data-harvesting contributes to the internet as we know it. Over time, the internet becomes much more narrow, prioritizing content according to our previous browsing habits or preferences. In addition to tailoring the internet for each visitor exclusively, our digital footprint can negatively impact our privacy and go as far as trampling on our future.
Thus, we can classify digital footprints into two categories. The first, referred to as active (intentional) footprint, contains all the information you share yourself, such as:
- Comments in forums or other sites.
- Email messages.
- Blog posts.
- Social media posts and status updates.
- Photos or videos.
The second category refers to passive (unintentional) data you share online without realizing it. It includes:
- Browsing history.
- Information accumulated via cookies.
- IP address.
- Geo-information created through the use of geo-tracking services.
Why should you care about your digital footprint?
Digital footprint basically determines who you are online. Each action you make paints your portrait, depicting your identity, preferences, interests, and routines. Considering that all this data is available for someone, it is worthy of concern. For instance, your social media account is rich in data. Depending on your privacy settings, there is a chance that anyone gets access to it.
In a recent Washington Post article, specialists emphasized that your digital footprint can be highly influential. The report explained that many colleges now turn to social media during their admissions processes. Thus, the information available within your profile can make or break your chances of getting into college. Employers might also run extensive background checks for new candidates. It is also possible that they keep tabs on what their teams post during their time at the company. Although your Facebook posts might seem insignificant, they could potentially ruin your chances, be it in education or career-wise.
Besides the overflowing details you release, the passive digital footprint reaches sources you never expected. Companies monetize it frequently for customizing marketing offers and showing tailored ads. Thus, as soon as you visit any website, it can know a lot about you. It can determine your location, the time you spend there, and implant cookies to track your actions once you leave. Since all of this happens under-the-hood, such data is much more difficult to control.
Other risks of revealing personal data online
- Identity theft. Releasing your personal information online dramatically increases your chances of identity theft. With enough data, fraudsters or criminals can attempt to impersonate you, usually for financial gain.
- Physical danger. Disclosing your location, especially in real-time, is incredibly dangerous. Burglars could determine the times when no one is at your house. Revealing too much via geo-tags could also help stalkers, abusers, or other creeps keep tabs on you. Additionally, specialists now strongly discourage people from posting pictures of their home keys. It is possible to recreate keys from a single image.
- Phishing and other fraud. Criminals can no longer rely on generic phishing campaigns. Their attempts to trick can sound highly believable, all thanks to the information they retrieved about you. Thus, be wary of social engineering and how fraudsters can use it in their nefarious plans.
Tips for controlling and reducing your digital footprint
It is unlikely that you will abandon your digital presence altogether. However, there are ways to be more aware of your digital footprint and limit its influence.
- Control the information you share. While you might like being open online, always reconsider the posts or details you disclose. There are many dangers related to oversharing, so try to keep your digital footprint to a minimum. Be sure to set boundaries on what you post and share. After all, that data might be available forever and, in some cases, might even outlive you.
- Manage your privacy settings. Consider restricting access to your social media accounts. Instead of leaving them public, set them to private. This change means that only your inner circle will be able to see your profile fully. While you are at it, do not accept friend requests from bizarre accounts or people you do not know.
- Have a secondary email address. You might already have an email account that you use for everything. However, it is best to use multiple email addresses. One should cover all confidential affairs like using it for your bank account. Your secondary email should deal with everything else, such as registering to online stores and receiving promotional newsletters.
- Close old accounts. You might have some accounts that have lost their usefulness. Try to find all such accounts and close them. If this is not an option, at least take down all the personal information available within them.
- Be respectful online. Your digital footprint is not always negative. In some cases, it might showcase your previous accomplishments. However, you may have written some mean comments at one point or another. The general rule is to be polite and avoid spreading gossip or slander. Such trolling could come back to haunt you and paint you in a rather negative light.
- Opt out of permitting websites to sell your data. You can prevent companies from sharing your digital footprint with advertisers and other third parties. Try to find such settings via apps or websites you use. Thus, you will protect your information from being sold or shared with unknown entities.
- Hide your IP address and encrypt web traffic. You can limit the passive digital footprint you unwittingly disclose. Your IP address is one of the pieces of information that you share without even realizing it. A VPN (Virtual Private Network) can help you mask it once you connect to a remote server. Thus, instead of showing your actual location, you will pinpoint another spot on the map. Additionally, a VPN encrypts information about your browsing activities, meaning that companies won’t be able to keep tabs on you as easily.