You’ve probably heard the saying, “what happens on the internet stays on the internet.” However, most people don’t realize that they don’t need to run a blog, post on social media, or participate in forums for their personal information to appear online.
Even without posting online, most people are still creating a vulnerable digital treasure trove of their personal data for malicious actors and predatory third parties to access.
Simply browsing the web — even in incognito mode — can increase this digital footprint. All of us, whether we like it or not, leave a data trace every time we go online. But some of us have a larger digital footprint than others. Keep on reading to find out more about digital footprints, why they matter, and how you can reduce yours.
What Is a Digital Footprint?
A digital footprint is a traceable data trail you leave behind when you go online or when someone posts something about you on the internet. Digital footprints can be either active or passive.
Active digital footprints are data trails you leave behind deliberately. Any time you post or like something on social media, you’re adding to your existing digital footprint. The same is true for when you install third-party cookies, publish a new post on your blog, subscribe to email updates, or send someone an email.
Passive digital footprints are the exact opposite — trails you leave behind inadvertently. For example, when you shop online, you unintentionally share your shopping preferences with the site, and thus unknowingly expand your digital footprint.
Digital footprints aren’t all bad. They may save you time logging in or retyping your personal information. However, this convenience comes at the cost of your privacy.
Tip: The Internet Society, a non-profit organization whose goal is to keep the internet open and transparent, has a comprehensive course on digital footprints.
How Is Your Digital Footprint Used?
If you’ve ever Googled anyone, you probably know how easy it is to find all sorts of information about someone. However, it’s not just your family and friends who might decide to keep tabs on you via your digital footprint.
About 70% of employers use social media platforms to screen job candidates. Of these, 57% have found content that made them decide against hiring a specific applicant. Don’t think you’re safe if you’re currently in employment, either. Almost one in two employers regularly check out their workers’ social media accounts and one in three has given out to or even fired an employee because of what they found online.
But employers are not the only group of people spying on you. On the internet, personal data is a valuable commodity. Marketers use it to target you with custom ads. Remember that time Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her dad?
Businesses pull this type of personal information from customer activity on their websites and social media platforms. They might also buy additional information from data brokers who collect data about individuals from all kinds of sources, including their social media profiles and public records. This information is then passed over to machine learning algorithms that build segmented profiles of similar groups of customers.
One researcher was shocked to discover that Quantcast, an online tracking company, had collected a report consisting of more than 5,300 rows and 46 columns worth of data, including her gender, age, gross yearly household income, and even recent travels and bagel preferences.
The thing is, anyone, including doxxers, stalkers, and cybercriminals, can buy your personal information from data broker sites, which leaves you vulnerable to harassment, exploitation, and identity theft. Data broker sites are also not immune to hacking. Earlier this year, a hacker got a hold of the business-to-business leads generator LimeLeads’s data and promptly put the data of almost 50 million business contacts for sale on an underground hacking forum.
How Can You Manage Your Digital Footprint?
To start with, use several search engines to perform an incognito search of your name. If you come across information that you’re not comfortable with being out there, get in touch with the site administrator and ask them to remove it.
You’ll probably find that your name, address, telephone number, and even marital status appear on online directories. Although you might think otherwise, what these sites are doing isn’t illegal. That’s because they feature publicly available information, like court cases and property records. In most cases, you can opt-out of these sites.
You might not be able to permanently delete things like your name or phone number from the internet (data brokers are notorious for re-listing people’s profiles even after they’ve been removed). But you do have control over things like your social media activity. Does the whole world really need to know that you’re currently upset about what a celebrity said or see photos from your vacation? Consider setting your social media profiles to private or using a nickname, untagging yourself from questionable Facebook photos, and deleting content that may be inappropriate.
It’s also a good idea to get rid of old accounts you no longer use, like MySpace, Bebo, and Flickr. If you can’t delete an account, remove as much content from it as possible. The same goes for apps. If you don’t need a specific app, delete it, and if you do need it, at least switch off location tracking (Digital Trends has a good guide on how to do that) and don’t forget to keep it updated.
Also, think about using a masked email and phone number when registering a new profile or shopping online (tools like Have I Been Pwned? can let you know whether your accounts have been involved in any data breaches) and switch to a privacy-focused browser. DuckDuckGo is an excellent alternative to Google and blocks all tracking cookies that can identify you.
If you decide to stick with Google, at least familiarize yourself with how Google uses your information and how you can stop it from collecting some of your data. That being said, Google isn’t the only company collecting data on you. The National Cybersecurity Alliance has compiled privacy setting information for countless digital providers, including Amazon, Spotify, and Instagram, among others.
You can also use a browser extension (like Blur), a virtual private network (VPN), or Tor to hide your real-world identity when browsing online.
What Are the Best Ways to Delete Your Digital Footprint?
It’s practically impossible to delete your digital footprint completely. However, you can minimize it by being mindful of what you share online, deleting or deactivating your social media profiles (or setting them to private), and opting out of data broker sites.
Speaking of data broker sites, we have a handy step-by-step guide on how to go about removing your data from these databases. However, reducing your digital trail is not a quick project, nor can it be done once and then forgotten.
For this reason, many people choose to hire a professional service to delete their data from data broker sites. For just $10.75 a month, DeleteMe will not only remove you from all major data brokers and people search sites, but they’ll repeat the process every three months, giving you complete peace of mind.
Protect Your Digital Footprint Today
By minimizing your digital footprint, you’re not only protecting your reputation but also your identity and sanity (you’d be surprised how many people experience online harassment). While no one but you can keep track of what you yourself post online or whether or not you use a VPN, when it comes to data brokers, it pays to get outside help to protect yourself from extreme invasions of privacy.