Your digital footprint is the trail of data left behind from all your online activity. Anything you share or do online, from visiting a website to interacting on social media, contributes to your digital footprint.
While much of the information stored in your digital footprint is a result of voluntary online activity like sending emails or submitting a contact form, it also involves less obvious information that you might not be aware of, such as a website that tracks and stores your personal data or installs cookies on your device without your knowledge.
The more you use the internet, the larger your digital footprint grows — and so do the associated security risks. Your digital footprint can be used to track your activity online and create a detailed online portrait of you, which can pose serious security threats if in the wrong hands.
Read on to learn exactly how your digital footprint works and what steps you can take to manage it (or jump straight to our infographic below!).
Active vs. Passive: What’s the Difference?
While plenty of the data in your digital footprint is a result of information you intentionally shared online, like commenting on a blog post or sharing photos on social media, there are other types of data collected that you might not be aware of. The types of data found in your digital footprint fall into two categories: active and passive.
Active Digital Footprints
An active digital footprint refers to any time you’ve deliberately shared information about yourself online. Examples of active digital footprints include:
- Posting on social media
- Logging in to a website
- Submitting an online form, like subscribing to a newsletter
- Agreeing to accept cookies on your browser
Passive Digital Footprints
A passive digital footprint refers to information about your online activity that’s tracked and collected without your knowledge. Examples of passive digital footprints include:
- Websites documenting how often you visit their page
- Websites scanning your browsing history
- Websites documenting how you arrived on their site
- Websites that track your IP address and location
- Social networking sites using data about your likes, shares and comments to present you with targeted content
Whether you contribute to your digital footprint intentionally or not, the data you leave behind is always subject to passive or active collection by other parties online. Once your data is public, you no longer have complete control over how it’s used.
Digital Footprint Examples
Your digital footprint can grow in a variety of ways. There might be hundreds, if not thousands, of data crumbs that contribute to your digital footprint. Here are some examples of online activities that increase the size of your footprint.
Online Shopping Data
- Purchasing something online
- Signing up for coupons
- Creating an account with an online store
- Downloading shopping apps
- Using a mobile banking app
- Buying or selling stocks
- Opening a new credit card
- Using payment apps like Venmo or Apple Pay
Social Media Data
- Using social media on your computer or mobile device
- Logging into other websites using your social media credentials
- Sending private messages on a social media platform
- Sharing photos on social media
- Commenting on friends’ social media posts
- Joining a dating website or app
Health and Fitness Data
- Using fitness trackers or apps
- Logging in to an online health care portal
- Registering your email address with a gym
- Scheduling a health appointment online
Online Reading and News Data
- Signing up for an online news subscription
- Reading articles on a news app
- Subscribing to a publication’s newsletter
- Reposting articles you’ve read
As you can see, there are countless online activities that can contribute to your digital footprint, and it’s important to understand that anything you do or share online can be traced.
How to Protect Your Digital Footprint
Once information has been shared online, it can be difficult (if not impossible) to remove it — which is why doing due diligence in managing and protecting your digital footprint is critical.
Prospective employers, colleagues and universities may look you up at any time, meaning the data associated with your digital footprint can potentially be seen by just about anyone. Cybercriminals are also on the rise and are constantly looking for vulnerable data to exploit. To ensure you keep your personal data protected, use the tips below to gain more control over your digital footprint.
1. Find Your Digital Footprint
Managing your digital footprint starts with getting a good picture of what data you currently have floating around. To do this, Google yourself and review the search engine results. This is a good way to get a sense of what information is readily available to anyone who might be searching for you online. Take stock of what you find and determine if there are any negative or concerning results. If there are, you can try contacting the website owner and request the information to be removed.
Now is also a good time to comb through any social networking accounts you have and review what data is publicly available. If there are old photo albums, tweets or online comments that should be hidden, make sure you update your privacy settings or remove them altogether.
2. Limit the Amount of Data You Share
The best way to manage and secure your digital footprint is to become more vigilant about how much data you share online. Take a more critical look at any website you’re considering sharing your information with and determine whether the payoff is worth it.
3. Clear Your Digital Trail
There might be some websites with public information about you that you’d rather not be shared, like on a real estate website or whitepages.com. These types of websites often include your personal information like your home address, age or phone number. To stay secure, you can contact these sites and request for the information to be removed.
4. Avoid Unsafe Websites
Visiting an unsecured website is an easy way for your data to become exposed. When visiting a site, make sure it’s secured by checking the website URL. A safe website’s URL will start with “https://” — the “s” stands for “secure” and shows proof that the site has a security certificate. If the URL starts with “http://” you should exit that website immediately.
5. Review Your Online Privacy Settings
Any online accounts you have, mainly on social media platforms, have privacy settings to control how much of your data is shared publicly. Take some time to review these settings and make sure your account is properly secured.
6. Don’t Share Personal Data on Public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi networks are less secure than your personal home networks, and you never know who manages it or who might be watching. A good rule of thumb is to avoid sharing any personal data while connected to a public Wi-Fi network, especially payment details or transactions.
7. Delete Old Accounts
It’s not uncommon to have a handful of online accounts you haven’t touched in years. One of the easiest ways to reduce your digital footprint is by deleting old accounts you no longer use or newsletter subscriptions you don’t read. While you might think these dormant accounts are harmless, deleting them reduces the risk of your data being exposed in the future.
8. Don’t Log in With Facebook
While logging in to apps or websites with your Facebook login is convenient, it’s not too secure. Using your Facebook credentials to sign into a third-party website permits that site to mine your Facebook account data, which only widens your digital footprint and increases security risks.
8. Keep Software Updated
When new software updates are released, it patches up any known vulnerabilities and ensures your data is as secure as possible. Cybercriminals love finding victims to exploit who haven’t updated their software to the latest version, so keeping yours up to date is a simple way to safeguard your data.
9. Create Strong Passwords
Strong passwords play a larger role in your data security than you might think, and your password is often the only thing standing between your data and a cybercriminal looking to exploit it. Comb through all of your passwords and make sure they’re at least 12 characters or more and contain a mix of symbols, numbers and upper- and lowercase letters. A password manager is also a helpful tool for generating and storing all of your passwords in one place.
10. Utilize Antivirus Software or a VPN
Using a virtual private network (VPN) is a smart move in securing your digital footprint and browsing the web securely. A private VPN works by masking your IP address and allowing you to access content privately online. A strong VPN will keep your data securely encrypted and prevent your data from being tracked or collected online.
In today’s modern digital era, data security is of increasing importance — especially as cybercrime continues to rise. Becoming aware of the types of data we share and where we share it is an important first step in better managing your digital footprint and keeping yourself and your private data secure. To further level up your security, consider implementing a cross-platform antivirus program that provides protection for all your devices.