The digital footprint may not be getting the same level of press as the notorious carbon footprint. That said, as more and more people run into difficulties and distress as a consequence of their ignorance concerning this new front of security, there is a greater need to get a basic view about its impact. Today we are going to give you a broad definition of what is a digital footprint, how it can affect you, and how you can take steps to protect digital footprint, reduce or even delete it.

The meaning of digital footprint: why is it important?

Your digital footprint is the sum total of your traceable digital activities. The definition includes everything from online communications on social media to logins and payments. To a large extent, your digital footprint is a permanent legacy that includes public and semi-public faces.

Negative impacts of a digital footprint usually manifest in one of two ways. The public aspects of your footprint essentially come to represent a portrait of yourself, or at least your digital personae. This can be used in order to assess you by employers or potential customers. If there are posts and communications from your past that you no longer feel represent you, this can be hard to remedy.

A digital footprint can be used to create a picture of you that can be used for malicious or even illegal purposes.

Secondly, the digital footprint that is made up of tracking data, can be used to create a picture of you that can then be used for malicious or even illegal purposes.

Active vs. Passive digital footprint

Your digital footprint is divided into two main categories, the passive and the active footprint. Here is how each one is broken down along with some digital footprint examples for each category.

Active footprint

This is the one you create every time you post a message on Facebook, engage in a Twitter rant or simply ‘like’ something online. It is also made up of all the images and videos you post and even the emails you send. Naturally not all of it is fully public but employees regularly use those parts that are to assess your suitability as an employee. It can also cause problems once you have the job if someone discovers a post from your distant past that clashes with the image the company is trying to portray.

Passive footprint

The passive digital footprint is the one you leave without really being aware of it. It is made up of information gathered by tech companies and corporate entities, which record everything from IP addresses to browsing history to purchasing records. It may seem mundane but companies can use this to build an effective portrait of your habits and likes, allowing them to create more targetted and effective advertising campaigns. It can also expose you to criminals if it is not properly protected. And this amount of data is growing all the time. The IDC recently reported that in 2011 alone over 1.8 trillion gigabytes of digital footprint data was collected worldwide.

On the whole, there is a growing awareness by even non-tech persons that both these areas represent a potential threat to their private security. A survey by digital company Virtu showed that a whopping 86% of respondents had tried to remove or decrease their footprint in some way.

3 ways to track digital footprint and control it

There is a number of ways to get a better sense of what you’re leaving on the internet. Here are a few basic methods to track digital footprint. By doing so, you will get a clearer idea of how to manage it later.

 1.Use Google alerts

First step is to carry out something that is given the less than complimentary title of a ‘vanity search’. This allows you to see where and how you appear on search engines like Google. Next, you can set up alerts using Google Alerts that let you know when keywords of your choice (e.g your full name) appear on the web. Now you have a sense of not only your past footprint but also your developing one.

2.Twitter

Not on Twitter? Doesn’t mean that people aren’t using it to talk about you! Luckily, you can still do a search for yourself or any term without having a Twitter account.

3.Start to control your image more consciously

If you don’t like the image of your online self that is starting to emerge after using these tracking tips, you can start to cultivate a new kind of image by taking control of your digital destiny. Start a blog and use it to give search preference to images, articles, and videos that better represent who you are.

Should you minimize it?

Short answer, yes. The smaller my digital footprint is, the more in control of it I can be. The figures stated above concerning the amount of personal data being saved and stored indicates that, in general, people are not following good guidelines how to manage it.

Two main reasons why you should minimize your digital footprint:

1. Keeping your online persona under YOUR control

As mentioned above, your active digital footprint is being utilized by employers and advertisers to make decisions that you are not a part of. In all likelihood, that persona is already more public than you’d like to believe. By taking the appropriate steps and minimizing careless activity, you can take more control of how you are presenting yourself online.

Your active digital footprint is being utilized by employers and advertisers to make decisions that you are not a part of.

2. Reducing the risk of identity theft and fraud

There are a number of ways in which thieves can use your digital footprint to steal information and impersonate you online. Many people consider this to be solely tied to the information stored as part of a passive footprint, however, a surprising amount of personal information can be gleaned or even taken directly from your active posts that help thieves access your accounts.

Thieves can use your digital footprint to steal information and impersonate you online.

How to reduce or erase my digital footprint

There are a number of ways you can dust away and obscure the trail you’ve already left behind as well as preventing the creation of new footprints in the future. Here is a list of some straightforward methods that can help you do just that.

1. Delete your old accounts

This will seem like common sense to some but how many of us really invest the time to do it. Maybe you’ve finally decided to get off Facebook but you probably haven’t thought of the many other social media outlets, shopping accounts, or even website subscriptions that you still have active. Even if you can’t remember them all, try to get as many as you can. Keep in mind that many data holders, including Facebook, will retain your information even if you request a deletion. For these, it is a good idea to update categories with false information which will eventually get indexed by Google and essentially erase digital footprint.

2. Use Stealth mode or Incognito

Almost every browser has some kind of anonymous browsing mode these days. It is a basic but useful way to add some security and eliminate your footprint. For a greater step, you can employ dedicated digital footprint tools for browsers.

3. Use a VPN

The next step in stealth online activity is the use of a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. These are dedicated services that offer an alternative or virtual IP that keeps your actual IP address totally secret.

A form of encryption that prevents anyone from seeing or tracking your activity.

This is essentially a form of encryption that prevents anyone from seeing or tracking your activity, however, you should ensure that you are confident your provider is not intentionally giving information to governments and other vested interests or is not in a position to be forced to either.

4. Consider what information you are putting out there

Many people take all the steps when it comes to obscuring their passive digital footprint and then go ahead and post personal details like addresses and date of births in social media post with reckless abandon. Keep an awareness of who might be watching you use social media outlets.

But can my digital footprint expose me to hackers?

Absolutely, and there is a surprising variety of ways in which this can come about. There is growing concern about the safety of personal information stored with big companies, with recent hacks of Sony and the like creating even more concern. However, if you think about it, you probably have a host of important info stored with smaller vendors who put far less time and effort into security.

People are generally not conscious of how their digital footprint can expose them in real time. There are many reported cases where individuals unwittingly gave away their location via social media post or even through the tracking information collected by their phone. This gave criminals the information that they were not currently at home and were vulnerable to a housebreak. There is also widespread use by criminals of malware that silently collects data from personal computers and sends it back to the criminals.

Conclusion

Ultimately, while there is no practical way for the everyday users to be 100% immune to an unwanted use of personal data obtained from a digital footprint, the old adage of ‘you are about as safe as you want to be’ does seem to be coming back to the fore of the discussion. The attitude of readiness that permeates the streets and alleyways of the nighttime hours has, as yet, not fully made the transfer over to online behaviour. However, there is a growing awareness that one needs to keep one’s wits about them when interacting online.