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Are you aware of how much information you’re sharing online and who is collecting this data about you? 

Companies and people around the world follow the paths we take in using the internet, and this is often done without our knowledge. Our footsteps into the online world are often there for others to follow and record. 

As of October 2023 there were 5.3 billion internet users globally, of which 4.74 billion were social media users. Every single internet user has a digital signature and ‘footprints’, meaning there were 5.3 billion global digital footprints.

What Is a Digital Footprint?

A digital footprint is the body of data you leave behind when you use the internet. We each have our own distinct way of walking and different treads underneath our shoes, so when we walk in the mud, we leave our unique marks. In a similar way, our online behaviours and contributions leave behind traces for others to see, and this is our digital footprint. 

If you use the internet regularly, it is a good idea to get to know your digital footprint, as it can be used to give a view to your personal reputation and paint a picture of you that you may not have thought about.

You can’t get rid of your digital footprint, but you can take steps to ensure you keep your digital footprint safe.

How Does Your Footprint Grow?

Each time you use the internet your digital footprint grows. The most common ways include:

  • Posting on social media
  • Interacting with people and posts on social media
  • Doing your online shopping
  • Engaging with blog posts
  • Browsing the internet
  • Accessing your emails
  • Using instant messaging or online chats
  • Uploading images and videos

Websites can track your activity by installing cookies on your device, and apps collect your data without you realising. Organisations may sell or share your data with third-parties, or your personal data may have been affected by a data breach. Think of it like a trail of breadcrumbs; every time you use the internet, you leave behind a crumb (data), and just like a trail of breadcrumbs, the data trail can be traced back to you and your identity.

Types of Digital Footprints

There are two distinct types of digital footprints you should be aware of:

Deliberate Footprints

These are our active footprints that are created when you have deliberately shared information about yourself. Examples of how these are created include:

  • Posting or participating on social media
  • Logging into a website through registered usernames or profiles
  • Completing online forms

Involuntary Footprints

Involuntary, passive footprints are those tracks that have been made unintentionally. They’re created when information is collected without your knowledge. Common examples include:

  • Websites collecting information about how often you visit, and where from
  • Websites storing your IP address
  • Social networking or advertising using your ‘likes, shares and comments’ to profile you.

Why do Digital Footprints Matter?

  • They are relatively permanent: Once your data is made public you have very little control over what other people use it for.
  • They can determine your digital reputation: You can ruin your online reputation as easily as your offline reputation. Be careful with what you put out on the internet.
  • Employers check digital footprints: Much like employers may check your references, they have now started checking your online presence, like your social media, to get an idea of you as a person. Universities have also started checking the digital footprints of prospective students.
  • Content can be taken out of context: You might have uploaded a photo or used specific language that could be altered or taken out of the original context, potentially damaging your reputation.
  • Cybercriminals can exploit your digital footprint: When cybercriminals get your data they can use it for phishing for account access, or potentially creating fake identities based on your data.
  • They can be used in social engineering tactics: Cybercriminals may use psychological manipulation to encourage you to take specific actions. Your data could be used in attacks to make them seem more real. For example, if you have posted about being on holiday, you may be targeted by spear-phishing emails about fake travel insurance.
  • Deleted data is not always gone: When you delete posts online or cancel subscriptions, the data they stored or produced is not always removed completely. Once something is on the internet, you cannot control how or who it is used by. Some platforms add deleted posts to an archive, so they are able to be accessed in the future.

Protecting Your Digital Footprint

  • Project a positive digital citizenship: This involves being kind, helpful, and understanding when interacting online. By staying positive what you post cannot be easily taken in the wrong context.
  • Turn on those privacy settings: Privacy settings change regularly as platforms update their software or new legislation is introduced. It is worth taking the time to go through your privacy settings and restrict what data can be shared about you.
  • Only share what you absolutely need to: The best way to avoid adding too much to your digital signature is to not overshare. If you wouldn’t be comfortable with everyone knowing something, it is best not to share it online, so it cannot get into the wrong hands.
  • Look yourself up: Searching yourself on a guest browser is a great way to see what public information is out there about you. You might not find everything, but it gives you a good starting point when thinking about what you have shared publicly.
  • Avoid linking your accounts: If you are signing up for something, it is safest to use a secondary email address, not your main email or your social media. While it may seem easier to link your Facebook to a website so you don’t always need to log in, you are actively giving that website more information about you.
  • Manage your cookie preferences: Most websites use cookies nowadays to track your data. Every website you use that implements cookies must ask you for your cookie preference. Essential cookies cannot be declined as they help the website function correctly, but all other cookies are optional. It is within your rights to decline non-essential cookies, and change your cookie preferences at any time.

This page was last reviewed on 12/03/2024