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What is a digital footprint?

Almost every company you interact with online is gathering information about you. Individual websites might store only certain relevant details about you but, taken together, that data can add up. This is called a digital footprint. But what does a digital footprint mean in practice? Is it a good or a bad thing? And can you erase yours?

Malcolm Higgins

Malcolm Higgins

What is a digital footprint?

Digital footprint definition

Let’s start by working out a digital footprint definition. Your digital footprint is the data that you leave online, with or without your knowledge. Digital footprints include private messages, emails, browsing history, interests and dislikes, your relationship status, and even the angle at which you hold your mobile device. Anything that is tracked and stored is a part of your digital footprint. That data can then be categorized as either an active or a passive footprint.

  • Active footprint: Everything you choose to share online leaves an active footprint. That includes your tweets, comments, and even private data like emails and cloud uploads.
  • Passive footprint: Your passive footprint includes all the data that exists online without your knowledge or, sometimes, your consent. It’s the subtler, more technical information; the kind of devices you use, the operating systems you favor, your IP address, and so much more. This is the data that you make public just by interacting with the internet.

How do we leave digital footprints?

If you don’t want to leave any digital footprint at all, you should never use a digital device. Don’t worry, though; that’s not what we’re suggesting. But to be in control of your data, you should understand how your digital footprint is created in the first place.

Your digital footprint starts when you send data out from your own network and into the wider internet. When you try to access a website or send a message, your data will always be travelling through someone’s servers. Whoever owns the server your data goes through will decide what information to track, store, and share with others.

Take an email login page, for example. You load the page, enter your credentials, and access your email. These are the parts of your digital footprint you can see. However, behind the scenes there’s another world that most people forget about. Your email company could also be logging details like:

  • Your location;
  • When you visited the website;
  • How long you spent on page;
  • The movement, speed, and direction of your mouse;
  • What device you’re using;
  • What operating system and browser you’re using.

As you can see, there’s a lot happening in the background. Those small pieces of data that don’t mean much in a vacuum can come together to form a surprisingly accurate image of who you are.

Is leaving a digital footprint bad?

A digital footprint isn’t inherently bad or good. It’s a collection of your data. Whether it can affect your life negatively or positively depends on how much control you have over it.

Problems arise when people don’t understand how much information they’re putting online, and what can be done with it. The more you’re aware of your digital footprint and what it reveals to others online, the more control you can have over it.

So what does your digital footprint say about you?

Examples of a digital footprint

Here is a list of data that may have been added to your digital footprint just today:

  • Your browsing activity (including Incognito mode and Private windows). Your internet service provider (ISP) can log your online activity and even sell that information to advertisers and other third parties. Unless you’re using a VPN to encrypt your data, your internet traffic is not private.
  • Search history, cookies, and saved passwords. These are good examples of your digital footprint’s more useful side. Your browser will be saving a variety of information about you as you move from page to page, and this will usually make your browsing experience easier. There are ways to control how much your browser saves, however (more about that later).
  • Your social media footprint. This is a big one for most people. Social media is a daily experience for most internet users, and there’s nothing wrong with that in itself. However, even if your profile is private and you don’t post personal information, social media companies can still gather data about you and your friends.
  • Posts, emails, and messages (including DMs and deleted messages). Even if you delete a message after you send it, there’s guarantee that it’s really gone. Every email and social media message you send is being sent through the platform’s servers and into their databases.
  • Photos and videos (including cloud files and deleted copies). Posting visual media online has always been a risky business. With facial recognition companies scraping social media sites and logging people’s faces, you should always think twice before you put a photo of yourself or your family on the internet.
  • Any data managed by a third-party. Every time you give your information to a company or organization, your digital footprint grows. Whether it’s your college, your employer, or a travel company you’re booking with, providing a third-party with data about yourself adds to the data trail behind you.

Can you erase your digital footprint?

Legally, yes. Practically, no. You can’t erase yourself from the internet, but you have the right to ask that the company holding your data would delete it. But is that a realistic option? The process will be long, frustrating, and often unsuccessful. Especially when you examine similar cases in the past. Fortunately, there are services like Incogni which can help by opting out of data brokers automatically.

Another thing to remember is that to erase your digital footprint, you first must know how to find it. Some information will be indexed by Google but there will also be databases with your name, address, or your phone number that don’t appear on search engines.

However, if you don’t take some action to at least control your digital footprint, it might actually outlive you.

What happens to your digital footprint when you die?

Tech giants won’t voluntarily delete the data they store on their users, even after those users die. The data might not be worth much to them, but it would be too much effort for a company like Facebook to voluntarily remove post-mortem data.

That’s why it’s important to think about this problem in advance and to limit how much information you put online in the first place. The last thing you or your relatives want is a cybercriminal gathering information from your digital footprint and stealing your identity after you die.

How can you control your digital footprint?

If you’re going to use the internet, carry a smartphone, and stay in touch with friends on social media, you’re going to have a digital footprint. Rather than trying to avoid this, it’s best to just manage the areas that are under your control. Here are five tips for maintaining a secure and acceptable digital footprint.

    1. Manage your settings. It’s important to understand how settings work on your browser, and on any sites you visit. Take control of your social media’s privacy preferences, manage and clear cookies on your browser, and don’t rely on default settings if there’s an alternative.
    2. Set rules for what you post online. To avoid oversharing, set boundaries on what you post. Maybe holidays and restaurant pictures are allowed, but not pictures from your home or work. Decide on a criteria that you’re comfortable with.
    3. Correct inaccurate information. If you ever find companies displaying incorrect or outdated information about you, let them know. They won’t always be responsive, but some will alter or remove the data they have on you.
    4. Close old accounts. You can’t change the fact that you had an account. That’s a permanent digital footprint. But you should still close the accounts you don’t use anymore. You can also contact the company directly after the deletion and request that they remove any records they still hold about you.
    5. Use a VPN to encrypt your traffic. One way to control your data is by limiting how much of it companies get in the first place. A VPN encrypts your traffic and hides your IP address from third-party servers. With a service like NordVPN, you can stop your ISP from selling your data to advertisers, limiting the number of different companies that can keep logs of your information and reducing your digital footprint. NordVPN also has the Threat Protection feature that helps you identify malware-ridden files, blocks trackers and intrusive ads.

Encrypt your data with NordVPN and take control of your digital footprint.

Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm Higgins Malcolm Higgins
Malcolm is a content writer specializing in cybersecurity and tech news. With a background in journalism and a passion for digital privacy, he hopes his work will empower people to control their own data.