What Is Your Digital Footprint? How to Manage Your Online Data

What Is Your Digital Footprint? How to Manage Your Online Data
Graphic: Nathaniel Blum

Amy Young
December 13, 2019

Do you ever feel as if you’re being stalked? In a moment of weakness, you paused to click onto a handsome pair of boots. Now ads beckoning you to buy them have been chasing you down all over the virtual universe. The inconvenient truth in this age of online convenience is that just about everything we do online is tracked—and trying not to leave digital footprints is about as impossible as trying not to leave real ones on a thick layer of freshly fallen snow.

What is a digital footprint, and why is it important?

A digital footprint is the information you leave, both intentionally and unintentionally, about yourself on the Internet. If you’ve posted on social media, visited an e-commerce site or any other website, then you’ve left a digital footprint.

Having a digital footprint can be helpful. Its spares us the drudgery of signing into our email, bank, news, social media, and other accounts every time we visit. Because of digital footprints, we receive ads for products or services we might actually want or need, instead of random things, like snow boots, if we happen to live in Florida.

But having a digital footprint can also be a curse. Marketers, banks, hiring managers, landlords, scammers—they’re all becoming increasingly savvy at using digital footprints to judge us, persuade us to spend our money, or steal it from us outright. Bankers have been exploring digital footprints as a way to predict whether people might default on a loan. A 2018 FDIC working paper, for instance, noted (among other things) that Android users default more often than iPhone users, as do people who make purchases late at night compared to those who shop at other times of the day. A 2018 CareerBuilder survey found that 70% of recruiters check out an applicant’s social media accounts to inform their hiring decisions; 66% use a search engine.

The bigger your digital footprint, the more information crooks will have to compromise your personal data, particularly in this day and age of large-scale data breaches. With your address, financial, and personal information at a hacker’s fingertips, your bank information can get hijacked, you can be more easily doxxed or targeted for scams. For all these reasons—and more—it’s important to be aware of the digital footprint you leave. Your reputation, privacy, and security depend on it.

What Are Examples of a Digital Footprint?

Digital footprints are either active or passive. Active digital footprints are pieces of information you intentionally share on the web, such as posts on social media, comments in response to a news article, retweets or your personal information when you sign up for an account.

Even if you opt to have, for example, your Facebook posts show up for only the friends and family you choose, you are still leaving a digital footprint because the platform itself can see the information you post, when you post, how often, and to whom.

“They have your ‘social graph’ on the platform—the network of connections between you and your followers and those you are following, and this can be highly revealing,” said Robin Wilton, senior advisor on internet trust at the Internet Society. This data allows the platform to make inferences about your social demographic, age, income, sexual orientation and so on. What’s more, she said, even if you’re private, people you interact with online may not be. “The content of their posts—especially the ones where they are interacting with you—may reveal information about your views, preferences, and preoccupations.”

Passive digital footprints pertain to data that you don’t deliberately leave on the internet. For instance, with so-called first-party cookies—cookies installed by the site you’re visiting—you end up leaving data that might allow a shopping site to remember not only your account and order info but also the items that you browsed (hence the pair of boots stalking you). With third-party cookies—cookies placed by a third-party firm partnering with the site you’re visiting (such as an ad or analytics company)—your behaviors are monitored, sometimes over a period of time, which can lead to ads stalking you across platforms and search.

Can You Erase Your Digital Footprint?

Not really, nor would you want to necessarily. “Some of that footprint is information you want,” explains Wilton—like your delivery address on an e-commerce site, which keeps you from filling out the form time and again. Beyond that, though, you can’t control what others say about you. If someone tags you or forwards you a post, there’s a trace of you that can be found on the internet. Even if you minimize your online presence, the companies and organizations you engage with—from hotels, to banks, to schools, to the DMV, to our employers —depend on the internet for keeping track of their interactions with you. Still, you probably can cover up at least some of your tracks:

Deactivate accounts you don’t use. If you’re done with swiping for dates, evolved in your fashion style, or tired of a particular blog, then eliminate yourself from these sites and platforms for good. Think back to old accounts too, such as Tumblr, MySpace, and so on. Sites like Account Killer and JustDeleteMe hook you up with not just the link but also an assessment as to how hard it might be to delete yourself. (Who knew that accounts for companies like Barnes & Noble and Starbucks would be designated “impossible”?)

Get rid of abandoned email accounts. That old Hotmail address, or the Yahoo one you never check because it’s overrun with spam? Consider letting them go.

Disable third-party cookies. While the first-party sort of offer some amount of convenience, the third-party ones can feel like an intrusion. Check out simpleoptout.com to find out how a range of sites you may have used are tracking you and how to get them off your back.

What Are the Best Way To Manage Your Digital Footprint?

Given that it’s so hard to clear your digital footprint entirely, the best way to protect your privacy, security, and reputation is to be cautious when you’re giving up personal information online. Here’s what to consider:

Check your online reputation. You can use a people search tool to try and see your own digital footprint. Google yourself and see if there is any inaccurate information or descriptions you prefer to get rid of, or posts you regret posting. Contact the sites to make those changes happen.

Adjust privacy settings in all your accounts. Change public settings to private in your social media accounts, and turn on “do not track” on your browsers. Understand, though, the information you post, while not discernible to the wider public, is still available to the platform itself.

Be mindful of what you post. Again, what you post under privacy mode can be tagged and shared by others, and even hacked. So don’t give too much information about yourself.

“You shouldn’t share anything that is used in those extra ‘security’ questions. They’re often about where you grew up, your first boyfriend/girlfriend/pet/car, street names and places certain life events happened,” said Chris Parker, founder of WhatIsMyIPAdress.com, The more of these details are exposed online, the easier identity theft can happen.” In addition, think twice before you post a comment in response to an article you read. Ask yourself: “Is this something I’d want a potential hiring manager to see?”

Related: Identity theft check: Uncover if your data may have been compromised

Be extra-careful when using public WiFi. These networks are often not secure, particularly if you don’t need a password to sign in. “Consumers should always be careful about sharing sensitive information over a public WiFi network because someone might be able to snoop on all your internet traffic,” said Juliana Gruenwald, spokesperson at the Office of Public Affairs at the Federal Trade Commission. If you must, make sure the site you’re connecting to is fully encrypted. You can tell this by making sure “https” introduces every page of the site (“s” stands for secure)—not just the home page. In the case of banking and payment systems, it’s best to go through the website; in the case of a mobile app, it’s safer to use your phone’s cellular network, Gruenwald said.

Be choosy about giving up your email, signing up for a subscription, or downloading any “free” content. Whether it’s to receive a 15% discount, take a survey, or receive newsletters, chances are that email or whatever else you give up will be used for marketing purposes. Make sure you’re OK with that. You might want to check out JustDeleteMe before you click to make sure you won’t be stuck with the account forever. Or you might consider creating a “throwaway” email account, complete with a fake birthdate which you give out when signing up for online fodder. If the offer comes from an email sent directly to you, you can do an email search to help verify if the email originates from a legitimate address.

Use incognito mode when surfing the internet. This way, your browser doesn’t keep a record of your browsing history, and ad companies and the sites you visit won’t be able to collect as much personal info on you. However, realize that the activity itself is not invisible from the website’s server or the wi-fi network, including your workplace’s.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.