DIGITAL FOOTPRINT

A digital footprint is the trail of data created as a result of your online activity. Your digital footprint includes websites visited, searches ran, social media posts and comments, as well as any other interactions. It is important to be aware of your digital footprint as it can reveal a lot of personal information about you.

What is a digital footprint?

You usually don’t have to worry about your footprints when you take a walk on the beach. Your physical footprints are typically inconsequential and disappear over time with the flowing wind, water, and foot traffic. Your digital footprint, though, is a different phenomenon. Not only is your digital footprint quite revealing, but it can also be challenging to scrub from the cyberworld.

Digital footprint definition

So, what is a digital footprint? Here is a fast digital footprint definition from Malwarebytes Glossary: “A digital footprint is the term used to describe the recorded—thus, traceable—internet or device activities of a particular person.”

Let’s unpack this definition. In a nutshell, a digital footprint is your data trail on the Internet. Almost every action you take on the Internet, whether visiting a website, subscribing to a newsletter, or searching for a product, leaves a trail of data. Anyone with access to a search engine, or advanced software like a skip tracing tool, can track your activities, behavior, preferences, opinions, and much more by following your trails of data.

Digital footprint types

There are several types of digital footprints:

  1. Active digital footprint: Data you created intentionally, for example social media posts or online form completions. 

  2. Passive digital footprint: Data created without your direct involvement or even knowledge - for example data collected by a website you visited or data generated by your phone as you're using it.Public digital footprint: This is the data that is available to the general public, such as your social media posts or information on your public profile on a website.

  3. Private digital footprint: Data accessible to only certain group of people - online member-only group or a group chat messages.

  4. Commercial digital footprint: Data collected by businesses for commercial purposes, when you shop online, etc.

Why a digital footprint is important 

It’s never completely gone 

Experts say that you should be very careful about what you post on the Internet because it may be online permanently. Even if a website, host, or social media platform takes down a piece of your digital footprint upon your request, there’s a chance that someone has documented this information.

It determines reputation 

Your digital footprint can have a significant impact on your reputation, even if the data is decades old. For example, a controversial opinion expressed on a public forum many years ago can determine how others view you. A digital footprint’s impact can also be unforgiving. Your views may have grown, but your outdated opinions can live in infamy.

Employment and vetting 

According to Monster, 77% of employers Google job applicants. In other words, your digital footprint can have major ramifications for your job prospects.

It’s not just employers who check your digital footprints. Governments, security companies, police stations, and others may scrutinize your digital footprint before issuing certificates, visas, or citizenships.

Universities and colleges are also vetting candidates by analyzing their digital footprints. In addition to checking for problematic behavior, they are fact-checking applicant claims.

It’s publicly accessible 

There are no special skills or tools required to investigate a digital footprint. Anyone with access to a device and a search tool can look up a digital footprint. According to some experts, digital footprints are more critical than offline reputations in the modern age due to the former’s accessibility.

Credibility 

Your digital footprint can affect your credibility. People may find you less trustworthy if they find problematic elements in your digital footprint. Likewise, contradictory statements from your past can also negatively impact your credibility.

Misinterpretation of past photos and videos 

Some users on the Internet can be quick to jump to conclusions after misinterpreting information. And the snowball of misinformation can be hard to stop when it starts rolling.

Photos and videos taken from outdated devices can be ambiguous enough to create misunderstandings. Similarly, misinterpretation of words can lead to dicey situations. In some locations, misunderstandings can result in fatal consequences.

Information can be widespread 

You may lose track of your digital footprint fast if you’re maximizing your passive and active digital footprints. The Internet is growing rapidly, and there are plenty of spaces that can hold your data.

Exploitation of information 

  • A bad actor can exploit your information in several ways. For example, they may use your data to learn more about you and formulate a spear-phishing attack.
  • A bad actor may also exploit a large and open digital footprint for a doxxing attack. In other words, they may publish your sensitive information for everyone to see.
  • People with highly visible digital footprints, such as video game streamers, can be vulnerable to swatting attacks.
  • Businesses, marketers, platforms, and websites can exploit your information too. For example, a website may leverage your passive digital footprint to target you with advertising.

Digital footprint examples 

Browsers 

Your web browser exchanges different kinds of information with websites to deliver a more accurate and personalized experience. Such information can be leveraged to take advantage of you.

IP addresses 

Every device you use to access the Internet is assigned a unique identifying string of characters called an IP address. You can think of it as something of a digital fingerprint. Threat actors may use your IP address to track your location, frame you for a cybercrime, or launch compelling scams. Read in-depth here: what is IP address.

Social media 

Social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are all part of your digital footprint. Your social media interactions, such as your likes, shares, posts, uploads, friendship requests, and more, grow your digital footprint.

Online banking 

Here are some types of online banking habits that expand your digital footprint:

  • Applying for a credit card.
  • Buying cryptocurrency.
  • Selling stocks.
  • Subscribing to financial newsletters.

Shopping online 

Your online shopping behavior is a component of your digital footprint, whether you shop through websites or mobile apps. Online shopping platforms can carry a record of your shopping habits and your personal information, such as your name, address, contact information, and credit card data.

Trackers 

As mentioned, all types of digital activities can grow your digital footprint, including using some of the following trackers:

  • Fitness trackers
  • Reading trackers
  • Time trackers

Subscriptions 

Subscribing to newsletters, blogs, and vouchers can shape your digital footprint. These activities reveal your habits and tastes to marketers. 

Emails and texts 

The emails and text messages you send are part of your digital footprint. Some entities can mine this data for valuable information.

Online forms 

The information you enter on online forms when shopping, applying for a loan or requesting a service is stored on a computer somewhere. This data can be valuable to a marketer. 

Public comments 

The opinions you share on message boards, social media, or news websites can significantly impact your reputation and your credibility. Removing or modifying public comments can be more challenging with time.

Blog posts 

Strongly opinionated blog posts have a significant impact on your brand and are a clear example of your digital footprint.

How to check your digital footprint 

Search engines 

Check the search results of your name on a search engine. Use your first and last name, variations of your first and last name, online handles, and nicknames. In some instances, your unique longtime digital handle may be more revealing than your actual name.

Image search 

Use a search engine to look for search results related to your name and online handles, as instructed above. But instead of looking at text, check for images and videos.

Review your past social media 

Enter your social media handle followed by the name of a social media platform in a search engine. You should now see a list of your popular social media posts. Alternatively, you can visit your social media page and scroll through your list of posts.

To find specific social media posts, search with your social media handle, social media platform name, and the keywords you may have used in the post you’re looking for.

Check aggregated sites 

An aggregator website collects data from across the Internet for easy access. If you’re checking your digital footprint, such a website may have already done the legwork for you.

Google alerts 

Setting up Google Alerts is an excellent way to track your name on the Internet.

How to delete your digital footprint

Unfortunately, there’s no way to completely delete your digital footprint if you frequently use Internet-connected devices. However, there are ways to manage your digital footprint. For instance, if you see questionable content related to your name on a social media platform, you can delete or modify it yourself. If there is content hosted by other websites that you’d like to scrub, you can request the site administrator to remove it. 

What are the consequences of a digital footprint? 

  • Damaged reputation: Data that shows you in a negative light can result in a damaged reputation.
  • Cybersecurity vulnerability: A threat actor can leverage your digital footprint to attack you with a spear-phishing campaign or harvest your information for a dictionary attack to crack your passwords.
  • Embarrassment or blackmail: Threat actors can use sensitive information to embarrass others or blackmail them.
  • Data breach: An old password bought on the Dark Web can be manipulated by hackers to attack an organization for data exfiltration.
  • Employer screening: Negative online activity from years ago can impact your ability to secure employment.
  • Fraud: Bad actors can use your publicly available information to commit different types of crimes, including fraud. For example, with your data, someone can apply for a loan, credit card, or government subsidy in your name.

Protecting your digital footprint 

The Internet is a vast space. Protecting your digital footprint isn’t a straightforward task. Not everything is in your control, as evidenced by Apple keeping some Siri recordings from iPhones. Still, we recommend adopting several steps and practices to protect your digital footprint.

  • Download anti-malware software to stop the type of malware attack that invades your security and privacy. It’s best for individuals and organizations to be proactive as far as privacy is concerned because reputation management in the age of cyberattacks can be tricky.
  • Update your software regularly with the newest security patches to mitigate the risk of data leaks.
  • We recommend that you use a VPN. But what is a VPN used for in terms of digital footprint management? Well, it will hide your IP address to protect your anonymity and encrypt your data to enhance your security.
  • Try a browser like TOR Browser for more privacy. You can also check our list of best browsers for privacy and security.
  • Learn how to clear cookies to prevent websites from tracking you.
  • Use search engines to keep an eye on your digital footprint.
  • Only share information with websites, platforms, and apps on a need-to-know basis.
  • Avoid oversharing information on social media. If you must share personal information, only share it with trusted friends.
  • Think twice before you post anything online. Potentially millions of people may see what you share on the Internet. And someone may also take a screenshot before you change your mind and remove the post.

Prepare yourself if your digital footprint is concerning. For example, create potential answers with a professional for colleges, universities, or employers who may have questions about the negative aspects of your digital footprint.

Learn how to communicate with websites that you want to remove your posts or photos. Polite but serious inquiries work best, while harassment is usually counterproductive. If your messages don’t work, then you may need to approach an attorney for help.

In case of a data breach, immediately get in touch with the relevant authorities like your financial institution or law enforcement agency. You should also change your passwords and scan your systems with a spyware scanner.

At Malwarebytes, we believe that digital literacy should start early. You can help your child manage their online reputation by educating them on best practices. Take every step you need to minimize your digital footprint and learn how to manage undesirable events.

FAQs

A digital footprint is the user trail of data, created as a result of your online activity. This includes websites visited, searches made, social media posts, as well as any other interactions that are recorded by digital devices.

There are several types of digital footprint - active, passive, private and public.

There are a few things you can do to manage your digital footprint:

  1. Be mindful of what you share online. 

  2. Use privacy settings. 

  3. Use strong, unique passwords. 

  4. Be cautious about online friendships and interactions. 

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