What is your digital footprint?

Your digital footprint is always growing – so we explore how you can keep it under control

Footprints crafted from binary code

Data, as the saying goes, is very much “the new oil” in a business landscape driven by insights and optimisation, with information serving as the currency that keeps everything moving.

The way in which personal information is used by some of the biggest companies in the world has also come under much greater scrutiny of late, given that it’s much easier for unsuspecting users to voluntarily give away their valuable data for free. One very controversial example to illustrate the new role that data plays in today’s landscape is targeted advertising - with social media companies routinely criticised for serving users with targeted ads based on analysis of the data they’re unknowingly surrendering. 

While you might easily give away your data without meaning to by signing user agreements and ignoring terms of service, it’s also easy to fall into the trap of giving away too much about yourself on social media sites. In today’s age, we all need to be much more conscious about our digital footprints, and the impressions we leave behind as we surf the web.

The definition of a digital footprint

To illustrate how a digital footprint manifests, we can look to the way LinkedIn users might learn much more about your professional ambitions and tendencies from information that you’ve uploaded to your profile than you initially bargained for. Details such as which restaurants or pubs you routinely visited could be picked up from casual social media posts, which others can use to determine where you might be based, and who your closest friends are. These are only a couple of the ways that you might create a wide-reaching digital footprint that tells others more about you than you intend.

While the information you consciously publish could be of some concern, the greater danger is the hidden information that you don’t know is being harvested along the way. This is far more valuable than any digital breadcrumbs you drop as you shift from platform to platform, as it tells others far more about yourself than you might be comfortable sharing.

Every click on a website is registered as a data point, for example, in addition to circumstantial data like when you’ve visited a certain page and how frequently. Things like adding items to your shopping basket on an e-commerce website, or cycling through certain products, are also registered, as well as likes and comments on social media platforms. These data points are then collected by an organisation, or several organisations, and processed to use as they see fit. 

This process isn’t inherently evil, and may often act in your favour by personalising your browsing experience so sites only showing you products you’ll be interested in purchasing, for example. There can also be moments, however, where you’ll be browsing and the level of personalisation you encounter, based on your digital footprint, becomes too personal.

The downsides of your digital footprint

While data can be used for your benefit, the same data can be used by hackers to fuel criminal enterprise. This may come by way of third-parties observing your method of payment, or what you may order while you’re out and about in real-life. Elements of your life you would normally keep private may be exposed through the exploitation of your digital footprint, inadvertently or otherwise, and subsequently used to blackmail you.

There are several ways you can minimise these risks, however, but first, you must take into account the moving parts. When it comes to your digital footprint, for instance, there are two types: active and passive.

Active digital footprint

A number of social media apps as seen on a smartphone display, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

An 'active' digital footprint is the publicly traceable information that you share on the web, including Facebook updates, message board posts and Twitter rants. We rarely think about this type of digital footprint, but it can become a major headache in some circumstances.

The most obvious example is in employment; when hiring a new member of staff, the vast majority of companies now look up potential candidates' social media profiles. You may have a bulletproof CV, but if your Twitter feed is a stream of complaints and insults directed at your former employer, that's likely to be a one-way ticket to the rejection pile.

Similarly, many people have been undone when ill-advised social media comments came back to haunt them later. The UK's first youth police and crime commissioner, for example, lost her job in 2013 after prior tweets emerged that many people said were racist and homophobic. The government's Data Protection Bill seeks to allow people to ask social media firms to remove posts they made in childhood, which should go some way to getting rid of embarrassing views people no longer hold.

Passive digital footprint

Your passive digital footprint is made up of the information that companies are harvesting behind the scenes, such as browsing data, IP addresses and purchasing habits. This is often collected without us even knowing about it, and is used to target advertisements, build customer profiles and more.

There are a number of ways to minimise how large this type of footprint grows, such as using proxies and VPNs, or using anonymising technologies such as Tor.

Thankfully, this data isn't usually publicly searchable, so it doesn't present much of an issue in day-to-day life - unless you're especially concerned with private companies like Google and Facebook tracking your internet activity.

Social media's security issue

The Twitter logo on a card surrounded by other cards with images such as fingerprints and locks

Your social media posts can also present security risks. By stitching together all the information distributed across your various social networks, criminals - both cyber and garden-variety - can often stitch together a shockingly comprehensive view of your life. This can lead to burglaries, fraud and even identity theft.

So how can you ensure that your digital footprint doesn't become a digital problem? The simplest solution is to make sure not to post anything potentially embarrassing or harmful online - a good rule of thumb is to never post anything that you wouldn't be comfortable with showing your boss or being read aloud in a full room. 

This is rarely possible all the time, though. Indeed, aside from the fact that this rule is heavily restrictive, there will always be incidents outside your control. This could include when someone posts a questionable photo of you on their social media account, for example. 

The good news is that most social networks have adjustable privacy settings, allowing you to limit who can see your profile and posts, and change whether or not new friends and followers are accepted automatically.

If you're especially paranoid about your online activities being linked to you, one option is to use anonymous social media accounts. These can either use entirely falsified information or personal details not associated with your professional life, such as a middle or maiden name. This will make it harder for people you don't personally know to track you down.

The final and most extreme option for managing your digital footprint is the EU's 'right to be forgotten' law. This legislation allows people to request that search results which are "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant" be removed from search engines like Google. There has to be a valid reason for the request, however, so this tactic does not apply in the majority of cases.

The best guidance is to be sensible. A few pictures of you on a night out are unlikely to get you fired, but posting a lengthy rant about your boss might. Voice your opinions on Twitter if you like, but try and refrain from spewing hateful, abusive screeds. Exercise good judgement and common sense, and your digital footprint will likely be just fine.

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