How often have you wondered if what you do online can be quantified, used to profile you, and affect your well-being or safety? Everyone knows that online activities are tracked. But neither the extent of this practice nor its ramifications are well understood.
Learning the consequences of operating in the digital space is of the utmost importance, given how much of everyone’s lives revolve around digital communication, services, remote workplaces, and so on.
With that in mind, what is a digital footprint and how does it connect to your online activities?
Summary: A digital footprint is an online impression. It’s what you leave behind after completing certain activities, and often contains sensitive or identifiable information. But similar to debt, a digital footprint can be good or bad, depending on how big it is and how it’s used.
What is a Digital Footprint?
The concept of a digital footprint goes by many names. Some call it an electronic footprint, digital shadow, or digital breadcrumbs. But whatever fancy term you come across, all refer to the same thing. That’s the trail of information you leave behind when performing regular activities on a network or on the internet.
If the digital world was a giant, snowy landscape, every action you make online would leave an imprint behind. As you might suspect, this is one of the many things that allow others to track you online.
But how noticeable is a digital footprint? It depends on your online habits, internet usage rate, activities, and other factors.
Types of Digital Footprints You Need to Know
To better understand the ramifications of adding to your digital footprint, it’s vital to familiarize yourself with the two types of digital footprints.
Active Digital Footprint
Active digital footprints are created and sustained by any action in which you willingly share information about yourself or your location. Examples of this would be social media platforms, comment sections, websites that require registration, completing an online form or questionnaire, subscribing to newsletters, and allowing the installation of browser cookies.
These examples refer to information and data shared deliberately.
Passive Digital Footprint
A passive digital footprint is the exact opposite of an active footprint. This type of footprint is created by data and information collected about you without your express knowledge. Sometimes, even without consent.
Passive digital footprint examples include website visits, IP addresses, browsing patterns, and even shares of your social media content.
In most cases, this type of digital footprint is generated using hidden processes and without the user’s knowledge. This makes passive digital footprints the most dangerous to leave behind because you can’t be certain what information third parties can collect about you and your online activities.
Common Digital Footprint Examples
Not everyone understands what they should or shouldn’t do to avoid leaving a noticeable digital footprint behind. Some examples of leaving breadcrumbs include social media uploads and posts.
Other actions that expand your digital footprint include leaving reviews, reading articles, listening to music, or watching videos. Even going on a shopping spree in your favorite online store leaves a data trail that makes your digital footprint bigger and easier to track.
Did you install cookies recently? Cookies track your activity and add to your footprint. What’s even worse is, you can contribute to your digital footprint unknowingly and unwillingly. With that said, there are certain digital footprint examples you must know based on the type of activity or website you might visit.
Social media digital footprints are created when you use a device to log in to your favorite social media platforms. Connecting with new friends, making fresh contacts, exchanging photos and information, and other activities can leave a noticeable digital footprint.
Online banking, despite its convenience, is another way to contribute to your digital footprint. Opening a new account, getting a credit card, investing in the stock market, and using your credentials to make payments involve the willful sharing of information and create active digital footprints.
Online shopping is one of the easiest ways to leave behind more than a few digital breadcrumbs. Everything from logging into shopping apps to newsletter subscriptions to coupon use to clicking ads will contribute to your digital footprint.
Fitness apps and trackers probably seem appealing if you want to get in shape but lack guidance and time. Like any other apps with tracking features, fitness trackers can make your digital footprint even more visible by collecting personal or confidential information and activity habits.
The same problem can be seen in other health-related apps, blogs, and devices.
Online news publications collect a lot of information like article views, topic preferences, where you post or share content, etc. This user behavior data is added to your digital footprint, whether you like it or not.
How Are Digital Footprints Used?
By now, you’re probably already aware of the many tracking habits of corporations, advertisers, governments, and your friendly neighborhood internet service providers. Information is king in the digital age, and consumer data is a valuable resource.
But how can your digital footprint be used, and why is it important to understand this concept?
For the most part, once data becomes public online, others can manipulate it in many ways. Imagine posting something on Facebook or Twitter and thousands of people re-sharing it, maybe taking your thoughts out of context.
Your digital footprint can be used as a business card, resume, or a means of establishing your reputation. These days, business partners and employers care about digital footprints as much as real-world perception.
Every breadcrumb you leave behind could either make you look good or bad. But given your limited control over this data and lack of context, digital footprints can do more harm than good.
The more obvious use is in advertising. Your likes, dislikes, shopping patterns, necessities, and other preferences can be extrapolated from your digital footprint. That’s why it’s so common these days to get spammed with advertisements showing exactly the products or services you need.
At least those can show you something you want. But not all advertisements are useful, non-invasive, or trustworthy. This brings us to the next point: cybersecurity risks.
A person’s digital footprint can be used to learn more about them and gain their trust. This can make people vulnerable to phishing and other types of cyberattacks.
There’s also the issue of privacy. Leaving a digital footprint pretty much means you don’t have any privacy, at least not online. Yet seeing how often the physical and digital environments become intertwined, your digital footprint can lead to a breach of your real-world privacy.
How to Protect Your Digital Footprint
Whether you want to keep your preferences and habits to yourself, you worry about identity theft, want to minimize ad placements, or just don’t like the idea of leaving a digital trail, digital footprint protection is essential.
Fortunately, you can take actions to minimize your online presence, maintain anonymity in various scenarios, and limit the amount of identifiable information left behind.
Separate Personal, Business, and Other Email Accounts
One of the great things about most email services is that they’re free to use. Arguably better is the ability to make as many disposable email accounts as you want. Switching between Google accounts is very easy, regardless of your browser.
Multiple email accounts with dedicated purposes will allow you to be more selective with the information you offer to specific online platforms and web services.
In addition, if you don’t mix business with personal activities, whatever information you leave behind isn’t enough to generate an accurate profile.
Tighten Privacy Settings
Are all of your social media profiles still set to public? Even influencers and celebrities have started restricting access to their so-called public pages. It’s a good idea to do the same.
This can prevent oversharing, and especially sharing information with untrusted individuals and companies. Limiting access to your posts and information is a lot more effective than you think.
Don’t Agree to Everything
There’s hardly a website or application so crucial that you can’t refuse their request to collect and sell your information. Here’s something you may not know. While you might have to agree to sharing information or installing specific cookies, you don’t have to agree to let companies sell the collected data to advertisers or even share it with their partners. Audit your current selections and start opting out of these agreements.
Stay Off Unsecured or Public Wi-Fi Networks
Unsecured networks are teeming with nosy individuals and businesses who want to learn more about you. The lack of security makes data breaches easier to execute and can render your most careful browsing practices useless.
Only Visit Secure Websites
Your passive digital footprint is often created with the help of cookies you didn’t want, security breaches, and malicious software.
These situations and practices are less common on trusted and secure websites, such as those that start with “https” rather than “http.” Revise your browsing habits and remove unsafe websites from your go-to list.
Use a VPN
You can’t exercise complete control over the digital breadcrumbs you leave behind. For example, your ISP will almost always cause you to leave an active digital trail and passive digital footprint.
The active component stems from agreeing to share information with your provider when signing the contract. However, the passive component comes from the various means ISPs use to track your online activities, many of which you don’t even have to agree to.
Bypassing ISP monitoring and eliminating those digital footprints isn’t easily accomplished just by using new browsing habits, multiple email addresses, and gaining a newfound respect for cybersecurity.
For this, you’ll need a VPN. Routing your connection through a virtual private network will hide your geolocation, IP address, and other identifying information contained in data packets. Cookies and other tracking methods can be useless against you.
Whenever you try to access a website, your request will be sent from a proxy server or bounced around multiple servers to mask your identity. This lets you browse anonymously and minimize your digital footprint.
Keep in mind that even when using a VPN, you can still create an active digital footprint by logging into websites using your credentials, sharing posts, commenting, subscribing to services, etc. A VPN only helps you reduce a passive digital footprint.
Minimize Your Passive Digital Footprint and Sharing Habits
Whether it’s changing your behavior on social media sites, being more mindful of sharing private data, using different social media credentials, or taking the security of your online activity more seriously, taking steps to minimize your digital tracing data is vital for your safety, privacy, and peace of mind.
Everything you post online can be used to collect information and used against you. Better browsing habits and a VPN can help minimize or even hide your online presence, even from the most prying eyes.
Frequently Asked Questions
hat is a positive digital footprint?
A positive digital footprint would be information and data that can increase your reputation in front of friends, family, partners, and employers by showcasing virtues and attributes you don’t actively brag about yourself.
How many types of digital footprints are there?
There are only two main categories. Digital footprints are split between active and passive footprints based on the type of data collection used to generate the digital trail.
Is a digital footprint dangerous?
Informative digital footprints are dangerous because identifiable information can be used in phishing attacks, hacks, identity theft, invasive advertising placement, and other practices that infringe on your privacy.
Author: Tibor Moes
Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab
Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.
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