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What Is a Digital Footprint & How to Protect It?

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in SafetyDecember 22, 2023
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There are many ways to identify someone in real life. You can look at their fingerprints, facial features, and the sound of their voice. However, those obvious physical identifiers don't exist on the internet. In the digital world, we're more heavily defined by our actions.

So, understanding a user's online persona requires a close look at their online activity. Every post, login, and shopping cart leaves a trail others can follow like footprints in the sand. The collection of this digital data we leave behind is called a "digital footprint."

Digital Footprint Definition

A digital footprint encompasses every recorded action that a user makes online. Phrasing it that way sounds like we're only talking about blog posts and social media reactions. While those are included in a digital footprint, less intentional activities like cookie information and Amazon browsing habits. You may also hear digital footprints referred to as an online digital record.

Your digital footprint can include any of the following examples:

  • Social media posts
  • Fitness data
  • Uploaded media
  • Shopping history
  • Browser cookies

Types of Digital Footprints

Organizations seek out different types of information depending on what they're trying to learn about you. There are two types of digital footprints they'll search for: active and passive.

Active Digital Footprints

Active footprints are created by a user's intentional activity. Anytime you make a choice, such as saving a webpage or sharing a TikTok post, you're contributing to your active digital footprint. These decisions make up the most visible parts of your online persona, and they're what most employers and acquaintances will know you by.

Passive Digital Footprints

Passive digital footprints are made of all data that gets saved without the user's input. For example, a social media app records when you stop scrolling through a social media feed. It looks at what kind of content prompted that reaction and slowly creates a curated feed that aligns with your interests.

The application passively gathered data about you based on your scrolling habits and contributed to your passive digital footprint. It's essential to understand that the information that makes up your passive digital footprint isn't collected illegally (although sometimes it is). Users usually agree to the passive collection of cookies or other information.

digital footprint

What Are the Consequences of a Digital Footprint?

The impression of your digital footprint can help or hinder many aspects of your life. Success during processes like professional screenings and lending applications may depend on what is found in your digital footprint.

So, it's essential to consider how your activity will impact future opportunities. What may seem like a benign post today could bite you years down the line. The internet is forever, after all.

However, it's not just your online reputation that's at risk. Having too much personal information recorded online is a big problem as well. Cybercriminals can gather the information you leave online to create more convincing and targeted social engineering attacks. Just making your email publicly available allows people to trace you through email lookup services.

For example, many people use their interests, personal information, or pet names as inspiration for login credentials. If your digital footprint includes clues to these types of information, criminals will have a much easier time breaking into your accounts. It could even put your loved ones in danger.

How to Check Your Digital Footprint

The most straightforward method to diagnose your digital footprint is to visit any search engine and type in your full name. Consider including specifying information like a home city or place of work to get more focused results.

Click through a few pages of the results, and you'll get a decent idea of what information about you is publicly available. The idea here is to figure out what someone will see with the most basic search since most people won't do any more than this.

Go through the pages that pop up and examine the content. What will likely pop up are social media profiles and professional pages. It's not enough to exclusively look at your recent activity. Take a stranger's perspective and try to piece together what the results say about you.

How to Delete a Digital Footprint

It's notoriously challenging to remove specific data from the internet. Even if you remove content from your profiles, it may exist on someone else's pages through a tag or re-upload. So, it's impossible to delete a digital footprint completely, but some steps will make your information harder to find.

  • Delete unwanted posts from social media profiles and other online accounts
  • Disable tagging permissions on social media so others can't attach your name to their posts
  • Remove unnecessary personal information from any profiles you must keep
  • Request takedowns from websites mentioning your name
  • Deny cookie permissions to stop websites from collecting your browsing data

These steps won't "delete" your digital footprint, but they will minimize the impact of harmful content. If you're in a position where someone will do a deep dive into your footprint, it's worth considering a scrubbing service specializing in removing unwanted details from the internet.

How to Protect Your Digital Footprint

The best way to protect your digital footprint is to remain conscious of your actions. People tend to turn off their brains after a certain amount of online activity, which can lead to regrettable decisions. 

Below are our best tips for staying in a productive mindset while online.

Stay Positive

Avoid using the internet as a way to vent your frustrations. It's too easy to slip into an aggressive mindset and underestimate the severity of what you're saying online. If you must criticize something, make it a point to remain cordial and weave in positive points.

Look Toward Your Future

Consider the paths you want to take in life. There's no reason to burn bridges you'll need later by attacking an affiliated organization.

Cookies are how companies collect and sell your personal information. It's best to prevent your browser from recording the websites you visit so you can surf the web with peace of mind. You can find cookie options under most browser settings' "Privacy and Security" section.

Maintain Clean Browsing Habits

Even if you keep a squeaky-clean digital footprint, a criminal could break into your accounts and post terrible content. Petty disagreements fuel many cybercrimes and aim to harm the target's reputation.

Beware of What’s In Your Digital Footprint

Your online actions leave a trail that anyone can track. This trail fully displays your personal life, interests, and relationships and may not even accurately portray who you are today. Posts and activity from decades ago can be fished up with relative ease and destroy someone's perception of you.

Make a conscious effort to control yourself when online. In today's world, a misinterpreted post could lead to consequences like lost job opportunities and broken relationships. If you need help grasping your digital footprint, InfoTracer offers several search services, such as username searches and IP lookups. We'll help you quickly locate what's publicly available about you so you can get a firm handle on your digital footprint! 

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