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Digital footprint: Definition, examples, and ways to reduce

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Sometimes known as a ‘digital shadow’ or an ‘electronic footprint’, a digital footprint is the traceable data and activity a user leaves on the internet. You add to your digital footprint whenever you visit a website, send an email, submit an online form, or complete another trackable action online.

Digital footprints play a large role in establishing your online reputation, which can be important for both personal and professional reasons. In the wrong hands, your digital footprint can lead to unwanted cybercriminal activity. Hackers will use information from your digital footprint to illegally access an online profile, bank, or other databases.

Protecting your digital footprint first means understanding where it comes from.

Understanding the root of digital footprints

Digital footprints began to exist soon after the dawn of the internet. At first, a user’s digital footprint was relatively simple — it could include an IP address, browsing history, uploaded files, online messaging, and any other data they might leave online.

The modern digital footprint grew more complex as the internet evolved. Today, your digital footprint might include a wide variety of items, many not available when the internet first went public in 1991. Your digital footprint today can include online reviews, digital images, reactions to online posts, and uploaded videos — all items not part of the original website browsing experience.

Digital footprints became more complex as the internet grew. Users would eventually contribute three major types of information to their digital footprints: personal data, professional data, and financial data.

The release of public social media — beginning in 1995 with — further deepened the complexity of a user’s digital footprint. The release of Friendster in 2002 introduced features like online dating, which quickly drove users to release even more personal information online. In 2003, the newly-released MySpace saw users add music tastes to rapidly growing digital footprints.

That same year, former PayPal chief operating officer Reid Hoffman would release LinkedIn alongside a small development team. LinkedIn largely introduced users’ professional information into their digital footprints. For the first time, business professionals could digitally look for jobs, update resumes, and network with business contacts from their computers.

Ongoing internet evolution also led to the popularity of both online banking and online shopping. A rise in e-commerce websites allowed customers to shop remotely. Improvements in online banking fed confidence in online shopping, which led consumers to contribute their financial information — including account and routing numbers, credit card information, PINs, and passwords — to ever-growing digital footprints.

Value of digital footprints

Digital footprints offer some real advantages to internet users. In many cases, your digital footprint can create a more personalized internet experience.

Your internet history and browsing preferences represent a large part of your digital footprint. Advertisers often use this information to show you advertisements for products and services you might be interested in. In the same way, search engines might tailor results according to your browsing habits, to deliver the results you’re looking for.

Your location, and location history, are also part of your digital footprint. Google Maps and other navigation programs will deliver food and travel recommendations based on the places you like to visit.

Personal and professional social media platforms also use information in your digital footprint to improve your navigation experience. For example, LinkedIn offers a ‘People You May Know’ feature to introduce you to new business contacts, helping you strengthen your business portfolio. Similarly, Facebook will suggest new ‘friends’ based on shared connections.

Drawbacks of digital footprints

Digital footprints can provide value for internet users. However, your digital footprint can also offer some disadvantages. Today, 81% of people believe that the risks of data collection outweigh the benefits.

Sometimes, brands are known to collect information without a user’s permission. And with 70% of organizations increasing the amount of consumer data they collect, this means more opportunities for data misuse. The same KPMG indicates that 30% of consumers are no longer willing to share their personal data for any reason, given concerns about internet safety.

Growing digital footprints can also create cybersecurity concerns. Cybercriminals today use a variety of strategies to access users’ online information; often, hackers gain access to users’ online profiles through information users share. For example, hackers might gain access to a user’s online bank account by answering their security questions with answers sourced from their digital footprint.

In some cases, a user’s digital footprint can also damage their reputation, or lead to the release of information they wanted to keep private.

Examples of digital footprints

Your digital footprint might contain several different types of data. Typically, this information contributes to one of two data categories: an active footprint or a passive footprint.

Active footprints

Users develop their active footprint whenever they knowingly contribute information online. You might answer a survey online to enter a contest or fill out a form to schedule a dentist appointment. Users can also create an active footprint by sending an email or online message or installing cookies on their devices.

In many cases, a user will only contribute to their active footprint when they know their data will be used for a certain purpose. For example, users trust that their doctor won’t sell their medical information to advertising firms.

Social media is one of the most popular ways users build their active footprints. To preserve privacy while using social media, many users will limit the type of information they post.

Passive footprints

Internet users often contribute to their digital footprint without knowing it — which contributes to a passive digital footprint. A passive digital footprint is any data you leave behind online without knowing it. For example, a website might save your computer’s IP address, or even your browsing history, without your explicit knowledge.

Your passive footprint can also grow when a website, or a social media platform, collects more information than you expect. This can occur when your social media likes, comments, or shares are used to profile you as a target for future advertisements.

Digital footprints and privacy

Recent years have seen increased interest in data privacy, as consumers grow aware of how companies track them. In the past year alone, state legislatures proposed or passed at least 27 online privacy bills to protect personal data rights.

Consumer response to digital footprints is mixed. Some users respect digital footprints for their ability to deliver a customized digital experience. Others appreciate how their footprint can positively contribute to networking or professional growth.

By contrast, many consumers don’t appreciate the ways that brands obtain information from their digital footprints. More than 50% of users have decided not to use a product because of related safety concerns.

Today, many businesses use data-mining processes — and entire data science teams — to analyze consumer data. They use this information to curate customers’ online experiences through targeted marketing. Other brands will even sell customers’ personal information to third-party advertisers.

Younger consumers in particular should look to reduce their digital footprint. For example, 45% of schools offer each student a computer; an additional 15% of schools allow students to take those machines home with them. Students who use technology for education should also prioritize data privacy, to maximize digital well-being.

Your digital footprint can also lead to cybersecurity risks that threaten user privacy. Hackers today have access to massive amounts of personal information, available online and through social media. They can use this information to access consumers’ bank information, social profiles, or other sensitive data.

Reducing your digital footprint

It’s important to reduce your active and passive digital footprints — particularly if you’re not trying to brand yourself professionally or scale a data-driven business.

Here are a few ways to appropriately reduce your digital footprint:

  • Close old or unused email accounts;
  • Browse the internet in incognito mode to avoid cookies;
  • Unsubscribe from unwanted email newsletters;
  • Limit the information you share on social media;
  • Keep your personal email address private;
  • Regularly update your browser and privacy settings;
  • Use virtual private networks (VPN) to stop web browsers from accessing your IP address and other data;
  • Set age-based internet safety restrictions for children;
  • Regularly update passwords used online.

This doesn’t mean ending all internet use; instead, it means limiting the information you willingly share online.

Consumers of all ages deserve a healthy relationship with the technology they use. One of the ways to improve your digital well-being is by optimizing your digital footprint and reducing the information you share to an appropriate minimum.