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What is your digital footprint?

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

Just about every single internet user has, at some point, been faced with a hyper-personalised experience that seemingly defies all explanation. One of the most common of these is the oddly specific cases of targeted advertising where you may have simply uttered a word in passing to a friend over the dinner table, and forgotten all about it until an advert pops up on social media for that very topic.

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While the myth of your smartphone ‘listening’ to you has been long-since debunked, the attentive internet user knows all too well the power of digital advertising companies and how easily one can be traced online. The digital footprint we leave behind is how these firms are able to deduce our likes and dislikes, our friends, our enemies, and what restaurant we want to visit before we even know ourselves.

Indeed, it can be unsettling when these odd occurrences happen, and remind us of the deep trail of breadcrumbs we leave behind after every browsing session. Of course, there are ways around being tracked, but these often require a much more laborious and scrupulous internet experience than many consumers are happy to undertake.

Not everyone is as carefree with handing over their data, however. It can be a disconcerting feeling to know that your entire life and personality can be mapped by any company with the requisite resources. There are certainly a number of ways to go about managing your digital footprint and understanding how companies track you is key to reverse engineering their methods.

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. From other social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, the same people can learn about your favourite restaurants or holiday spots, your closest friends, and the area in which you live. These examples are only a handful that demonstrate how filling out a few forms might generate a broad digital footprint that companies capable of processing big data can use to get extensive insight into you, and large groups of people.

Although it is almost inevitable that you will post things on social media and then regret doing so later, 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 if successfully harvested will certainly reveal more in-depth information than you would feel comfortable disclosing.

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. These can be on-site interactions — adding items to your shopping basket, for example, or likes and comments on social media platforms — or wider tracking of user activity. As a case in point, Meta uses tracking scripts to log user activity on websites accessed through Facebook links, and creates detailed advertising profiles based on them. This is often the reason you see ‘relevant ads’ on certain sites, even though you haven’t made an active search for the advertised items. These data points are combined and shared between organisations to process in a way that best suits their business models, such as Amazon's alleged use of third-party seller data to inform its own retail decisions.

This process isn’t inherently evil, and can benefit you by tailoring your browsing experience to only serve you adverts that you’ll be interested in pursuing further. There can also be moments, however, where you’ll be browsing and the level of personalisation you encounter, based on your digital footprint, becomes intrusive.

The downsides of your digital footprint

While personal data can be utilised for good, it can also be misused by hackers to fuel cyber crime. This may occur as a result of third-parties observing your method of payment, or observation of your spending habits out and about on the high street. Elements of your life you would prefer to keep private can be exposed through exploitation of your digital footprint, inadvertently or otherwise, and subsequently used to blackmail you.

There are several ways you can minimise these risks, but there are a number of moving parts of which you must keep track. 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

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An 'active' digital footprint is the publicly traceable information that you share online, including Facebook updates, message board posts and Twitter rants. We rarely think about this type of digital footprint, but under the right (or the wrong) circumstances it can become a major headache.

The most obvious example is in employment, which is still a very subjective and human-led task despite increasing attempts to automate it. 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 will likely prove a one-way ticket to the rejection pile.

Similarly, many people have been brought down by ill-advised social media posts being unearthed years after they were first put up. The UK's first youth police and crime commissioner, for example, lost her job in 2013 after racist and homophobic tweets she had made emerged. The government's Data Protection Act 2018 allows people to clean up their childhood social media footprint, 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 curtain, such as browsing data, IP addresses and purchasing habits. This is often collected without our full awareness, and is used for AdTech purposes, to 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 about what private companies like Google and Facebook are tracking about 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 chock-full of clues that could lead to bad actors being able to piece together a startling overview 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 pup’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.

Along with potentially hacking your personal or work email, or even your bank account, threat actors also partake in burglary, fraud, or identity theft using information gleaned through social media. It’s a big reason, along with the general prevalence of unwanted individuals, to never make a post that could help someone locate your personal address. Plenty of social media platforms offer the option to “tag” yourself at a given location when posting. However, this can also assist stalkers in keeping tabs on your whereabouts. With this in mind, it’s often better to delay posts from your brunch, picnic or social outing until after you’ve already left the premises.

Although it may seem over-cautious, this tactic provides at least two benefits: it lets you focus on your friends and family in the moment, but also protects you from being followed in real life, as opposed to just online. This won't, it should be added, prevent companies from tracking your location such as Google, which has been accused of invasive location tracking.

What is the best way to make sure your digital footprint doesn’t turn into a digital problem? The easiest solution is to ensure you don’t post anything potentially embarrassing or harmful on the web — a good rule of thumb is to never post anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with showing to your boss or being read aloud in a full room.

Of course, this can be tricky to follow at all times. Aside from this rule being heavily restrictive, there will always be factors outside of your control. For example, someone could post an unwanted photo of you on their social media page, and it can be difficult to have such photos taken down.

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Almost all social media networks give the option of adjustable privacy settings, whereby you can limit who gets to see your profile and posts, and change whether or not new followers or friends are automatically accepted.

You can always use anonymous social media accounts if you’re worried about your online activities being traced back to you. These can make use of entirely falsified information or personal details that aren’t linked to your professional life, like a maiden or middle name.

Lastly, the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ law is the most extreme avenue for managing your digital footprint. The legislation gives users the right to request that search results which are deemed to be "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant" be removed from search engines like Google. However, there needs to be a valid reason for the request, so the tactic doesn’t apply unless you can provide one.

The best guidance that can be given is simply: be sensible. A few pictures of you on a night out are unlikely to get you fired, but posting a soliloquy about how much you hate your boss just might. You are free to post your views online, but hate speech can and will come back to bite you. Exercise good judgement and common sense, and your digital footprint will likely lose you no sleep.

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