Understanding your digital footprint

By Patrick Baker ~

One day, you’re shopping for shoes online and then you’re seeing ads for those shoes on social media, news sites, or inside mobile apps. You’re beginning to notice a pattern. What you’re noticing is the influence of the digital footprint you create every time you go online and interact with content.

What is a digital footprint?
A digital footprint is a record of your online activity and any public-facing information about you posted online. Your digital footprint determines the ads you see online and the content you see on social media.

How do I create a digital footprint?
People actively and passively create a digital footprint. Your activity on social media and websites, emails, instant messages, and video chat using free services like Google and Yahoo!, as well as websites you’ve visited and interacted with, are all examples of actively building your digital footprint.

More passive forms of collecting information include activity on search engines, online shopping, location tracking on your devices, and public directories created by automated tools that “scrape” the internet and compile information.

Website cookies – small files created by a website to identify specific user sessions – also passively collect information. The apps you install on your smartphone, tablet, or Chromebook often require you to share information about yourself or your online activities in exchange for using their services.

How is a digital footprint used?
Your digital footprint is most commonly used for targeted advertising. A specialized type of cookie called a tracking cookie can be shared by multiple websites or online services. They are intended for legitimate use in marketing and advertising – like the shoe-shopping scenario described at beginning of this article.

However, because tracking cookies contain a history of a user’s activity across multiple sites and services, they are also open to abuse by tracking or monitoring a user’s online behavior.

Information collected by apps and online services is aggregated and sold by data brokerage companies, who often resell their information to other companies for digital marketing and advertising, and may include your street address, email address, and phone number. Your digital footprint can also be used for more nefarious purposes like identity theft, online harassment, or causing reputational damage.

In addition, employers can utilize your digital footprint for pre-employment screening and ongoing surveillance to better understand your personality, who they’re hiring, and what you’re saying. Similarly, your digital footprint can be utilized in college admissions by creating a profile based on your online behavior and activities.

How can I manage my digital footprint?
The good news is that you have a relatively high degree of control over your digital footprint and have multiple ways to manage it. Start by researching your name using multiple search engines (Google, Yahoo, Bing) and using any variations of your name (including a maiden name). See where information about you exists online and take steps to manage (or remove) that information where necessary.

For automated assistance, set up Google Alerts for new information published about you or your company. Go to google.com/alerts and enter your name, a text phrase, or the website you want to track. Google will notify you when information about the things you’re tracking is published online.

Utilize separate email addresses for personal use and online activities. For example, you could create a separate Gmail address for online shopping, mailing lists, or online services like social media. If this email address is sold by a data broker and you start receiving spam emails, they aren’t landing in your regular inbox.

Utilize privacy settings on social media. You decide who gets to view your posts and profile on and off social media – especially Facebook. Also, consider what you share on social media, and don’t overshare or limit the audience for more personal or sensitive posts.

Never share personally identifying information publicly online, including your full name, address, age, and Social Security number.

Opt-out or remove your information from data broker sites, though this is more difficult for average people to accomplish. There are companies that scour your information from data brokerage sites and help with online reputational damage repair and control.

Check if your email address or mobile phone number was stolen in a data breach and update passwords when needed. Go to haveibeenpwned.com and enter your mobile phone number or email address to get started. Also, use a password manager to keep track of online accounts and create strong passwords.

Create unique logins for online services using a different password for each service and avoid using single sign-in services from Facebook, Google, or Yahoo! where you use those credentials instead of creating a separate username and password.

Delete cookies, clear cache, and disable third-party and tracking cookings in your browser. Consider using a privacy-focused browser like Duck Duck Go (duckduckgo.com) or Brave (brave.com) that does not allow tracking cookies or other means of increasing your digital footprint.

Ad blockers remove excessive advertising from web pages you visit and allow fewer cookies. However, sites that rely on advertising for revenue, like news websites, may not load their content unless you create an online account or disable your ad blocker for their site.

Limit or disable permissions apps have to access your personal information, files, camera, microphone, or location on your devices. You can also use a VPN to mask your device’s location.

Periodically prune your social media posts to remove old content or posts you no longer want to share, publicly or otherwise. The nuclear option is to delete your social media accounts altogether.

There are many considerations when it comes to managing your digital footprint. However, you have a relatively high degree of control over how large you allow it to grow and how much of your information and activity you share publicly online.

Patrick Baker is an IT consultant and founder of Prime of Life Tech. To learn more about his services, visit primeoflifetech.com, email info@primeoflifetech.com, or call (720) 319-7145.

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