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

As the saying goes, data is very much “the new oil” in a business environment fuelled by optimisation and insights. Here, information serves as the currency that ensures everything keeps moving.

It has become much easier for unsuspecting users to freely give away their valuable data for nothing in exchange, so the way in which personal information is utilised by some of the biggest organisations in the world has come under a lot of scrutiny recently. An extremely controversial example of this, to highlight the new function that data play’s in today’s landscape, is targeted advertising. Social media companies are criticised for providing users with specific, targeted, ads following an analysis of their data that they have unknowingly provided these organisations with.

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Although you may easily relinquish your data without meaning to by ignoring terms of service and signing user agreements, there is also the danger of falling into the trap of providing too much information about yourself on social media websites. In the modern era, we should all be more conscious about our digital footprints, and the impressions we leave in our wake as we browse the web.

The definition of a digital footprint

We can demonstrate the way a digital footprint is generated by taking LinkedIn as an example. Once you fill out your profile, users can view certain pieces of information about you from the data that’s available, and make conclusions based on that data, whether or not you mean to make this possible. From your profile, it’s likely that users can ascertain your goals, ambitions and career history. Using other social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, the same people can learn about your favourite pubs or restaurants, your closest friends and where you live. These examples are only a handful that demonstrate how filling out a few forms might generate wide-reaching digital footprint that reveals more about your life than you might be willing to.

Although you’ll inevitably publish pieces of information that you might eventually regret doing, hidden data points that can be harvested by apps and systems are more alarming. This layer is far more valuable than the digital nuggets you’ll have dropped as you migrate between social media platforms, and will certainly reveal more about yourself than you’re comfortable disclosing if successfully mined.

Each click on a website is registered as a data point, which is combined with other pieces of data including how often you’ve visited a certain page, and when. Adding items to your shopping basket, for example, will be registered and sometimes combined with likes and comments on social media platforms. It’s often why you’ll see ‘relevant ads’ on certain sites even though you haven’t referenced them once. These data points are combined and shared between organisations to process in a way that suits their business models.

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 Act 2018, allows 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

In the age of social media, it has become increasingly normalised to share even the most personal information online. From seemingly-innocent pet photos to relationship statuses, the internet is now brimming with clues that could lead to bad actors being able to stitch together a shockingly comprehensive view of your life.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with posting a video of you playing with your dog on Instagram. However, if the pooch’s name is mentioned and you also happen to be one of the 15% of Brits who use their pet's name as a password, this might put your personal data at risk.

Apart from potentially hacking your email, banking, or work account, posting details of your life to social media can also lead to burglary, fraud, or identity theft. That’s why you should abstain from posting information that could make it easy for criminals (as well as some nosy individuals) to locate your home address. Plenty of social media platforms offer the option to “tag” yourself at a given location when posting. However, this can also lead to stalkers being able to track your whereabouts, show up to where you are, and even follow you home. This is why it’s best to delay posting from your brunch or pub outing until after you’ve already left the premises. Although it may sound extreme, this tactic provides at least two benefits: it lets you focus on your friends and family instead of mindlessly scrolling and checking for likes, but also protects you from being followed in real life, as opposed to just online.

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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