Whenever we browse the web, use search engines, log on to social-media sites, or post status updates, we’re creating a subtle digital footprint. These are tiny breadcrumbs of information that we leave behind on the internet that give advertisers, websites, and apps granular insights into our preferences.
For example, everytime we visit a website, it drops a “cookie” in our browser to record that activity. Some of the more egregious types of cookies are known as tracking cookies and are used to monitor our behavior across the internet, not just a specific website.
Things like filling out an online form, answering a quiz, commenting on a Pinterest board, or even engaging in online purchases add to our digital footprint. When collected together, they can build a cohesive profile of an individual’s history and preferences.
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Active and passive digital footprints
The activities we referred to earlier are known as active digital footprints. These are when you willingly engage in an action such as updating your social media accounts or filling out online forms.
A passive digital footprint is when websites and apps track subtle data that’s not tied to any activity. This includes details such as the type of browser you prefer or the primary device you use (Apple, Android, MacBook). Some websites will also monitor your IP address as part of determining a passive identity.
A passive digital footprint can also allow websites and advertisers to make inferences about your profile. For example, iPhone users make more purchases than Android users. And Facebook users in the U.S. and Canada contribute far more revenue to the company than users in other parts of the world. Such precise insights are highly coveted by marketers and it’s reasonable to expect that we’ll see more data tracking, not less.
How can you find your digital footprint?
You might not be aware of this, but there’s likely far more information about you on the internet than you realize. The first thing you should do is start with a standard online search of your first name and last name on a number of different search engines.
A specific search such as “FirstName LastName@” helps you see if there are any email addresses associated with you that you might not be aware of. Similarly, you could try “FirstName LastName filetype:doc” to check if someone has uploaded a word document containing your name. Repeat for other file extensions such as jpeg, pdf, and more.
HaveIBeenPwned is a popular online resource to determine if any of your email addresses were ever compromised in a data breach. Other websites that give you an insight into publicly available information include PeekYou, FamilyTreeNow, and Radaris.
Lastly, run an image search of your first name and last name to check if there’s any incriminating or doctored photos online.
Navigate over to Google Ad Personalization for a snapshot of your digital profile. This tells you what the company deems to be your interests and likes in order to serve you relevant ads. You must be signed in to view the data.
How do you protect your digital footprint?
The first step to controlling your digital footprint is limiting the amount of information others can view. Here are a few ways to get started:
Check your privacy settings on social media
By keeping your Instagram and Facebook accounts public, you’re allowing anyone with an internet connection to stalk you online and download your photos (and other information) if they wish. Double-check your privacy settings so that only your friends can view personal things like status updates and check-ins. You can also make customized lists of people who can see certain posts if you wish to protect your privacy further.
Close accounts no longer in use
If you made a Telegram or TikTok account in the past that you don’t use anymore, there’s no reason for it to stay on a cloud server somewhere. Delete all idle accounts permanently so that the existing data companies have on you is scrubbed from servers forever.
Encrypt your traffic with a VPN
As we mentioned earlier, one of the ways websites and apps track you is through passive digital footprints. This allows them to keep tabs of things like your IP address and where you’re logging on to the internet from. A VPN changes all that, since it diverts your traffic through an encrypted tunnel and switches your actual IP address with the one from the VPN server.
Be prudent about what you disclose online
A proven method of safeguarding your privacy is to be extremely careful and cautious about what you do online. Don’t share all your personal details on the internet, don’t go around filling out forms or signing up for random websites willy-nilly. The less information you disclose, the better. Remember that there’s a chance that the data will be captured and retained, potentially for a long period of time.
Keep your devices updated
Updating your devices isn’t just to stave off cybersecurity threats. It can also help to limit tracking by third parties. For example, Apple’s iOS 14 has significantly enhanced privacy settings compared with earlier versions. If you’re running an older version, there’s a higher chance of your digital footprint spreading. What’s more, older devices may also be vulnerable to privacy-invasive malware and zero-day exploits designed to mine data.
Can you erase your digital footprint?
Residents of some parts of the world, such as the EU, can place “right to be forgotten” requests with search engines like Google, asking them to omit personal information about themselves in search results. Request that can be accepted or denied, depending on the context. While this can certainly help prevent people from finding out about you through search, it doesn’t remove the data from the offending sites and apps. What’s more, the request only applies to searches from within that region; people searching for you from outside the EU might still be able to examine your digital footprint.
The short answer is that no, it may not be possible to completely scrub your digital footprint. This depends on other factors, too, such as how many social-media accounts you’ve created over the years and how often you browse the web.
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