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?
Feb 19, 2021 · 5 min read
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.
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:
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.
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?
Here is a list of data that may have been added to your digital footprint just today:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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