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Digital footprint: What is it, and how to control it?

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?

Digital footprint: What is it, and how to control it?

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is a digital footprint?

Digital footprint definition

A digital footprint refers to the traceable online activities of a specific digital entity. A digital footprint can be passive (browsing activity and information stored in cookies) or active (posts on social media, accounts created on websites, or any other active action by the user). Having a digital footprint allows online entities to build an online presence, establish a reputation, and influence others. However, digital footprints also raise serious privacy concerns: a digital footprint lets companies tailor ads to the entity’s preferences, while strangers can use the footprint to discreetly observe the entity online.

How do we leave digital footprints?

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 travel through someone’s servers. Whoever owns the server that your data goes through will decide what information to track, store, and share with others.

Take a social media login page, for example. You load the page, enter your social media credentials, and access your account. These are the parts of the digital footprint you can see. However, behind the scenes, there’s another world that most people don’t know about. The websites and services could also be logging details like:

  • Your location.
  • When you visited the website.
  • How long you spent on the 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, a lot is 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.

To be in control of your data, you should understand how your digital footprint is created in the first place. 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. Read on to find out how you can reduce your footprint.

Why is a digital footprint important?

A digital footprint is a collection of your online data, and it can impact your online reputation, personal and professional opportunities, or even your safety. Moreover, companies collect information about your online activities and later target you with personalized ads. So whether a digital footprint affects 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 protect your digital footprint and what it reveals to others online, the more control you can have over it.

So what do your digital footprints say about you?

Examples of a digital footprint

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

  • Social media profiles. Social media is a daily experience for most internet users, and there’s nothing wrong with it. However, even if your profile is private and you don’t post personal information, social media companies like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter can still gather data about you and your friends.
  • Internet browsing history. Your browser saves a variety of information about you as you move from page to page. Each time you use search engines like Google or Bing, the company collects information about your searches that can be traced back to you.
  • Email. Even if you delete a message after sending it, there’s no guarantee that it’s actually gone. Every email you send or receive is sent through the platform’s servers and into their databases, which may log the content of the email, email addresses, and attachments.
  • Online shopping. Your digital footprint grows whenever you purchase something and gives your information to a company or organization. It includes your purchase data, banking details, such as credit card numbers, and your shipping address.
  • Online forums. If you take part in online discussions, you leave a digital footprint. Your comments and posts sharing personal opinions and experiences may also be traced back to you.
  • Online banking. When you create an e-banking account, it leaves a digital footprint. Paying bills, checking your balance, or making transfers – everything counts.
  • Online gaming. Chats, game scores, and other activities leave a digital footprint whenever you play online video games.

These are just a few examples of how your online activity grows your digital footprint. Be wary of what you share online because it can easily be traced back to you.

How can you delete your digital footprint?

Technically, you can’t erase yourself from the internet, but you have the right to ask the company holding your data to delete it. However, the process may be long, frustrating, or even unsuccessful. Fortunately, services like Incogni 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. Google will index some information, 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.

How can you control your digital footprint?

If you use the internet, carry a smartphone, and stay in touch with friends on social media, you will have a digital footprint. Rather than trying to avoid this, managing the areas under your control is the better answer. Here are six tips for maintaining a secure and acceptable digital footprint.

    1. Adjust your social media privacy settings. Understanding how settings work on your browser and on any sites you visit is important. 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. Be careful of what you share. 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 criteria that you’re comfortable with.
    3. Keep your online information up to date. Let them know if you ever find companies displaying incorrect or outdated information about you. They won’t always be responsive, but some will alter or remove the data they have on you.
    4. Delete old social media accounts. You can’t change the fact that you had an account. That’s a permanent digital footprint. But you should still close the social media accounts you don’t use anymore. You can also contact the company directly after the deletion and request they remove any records they still hold about you.
    5. Keep your passwords private. Create unique and complex passwords to keep your online accounts safe, and use a password manager to store your passwords.
    6. Use a VPN to encrypt your traffic. One way to control your data is by limiting how much information 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 downloads and blocks trackers and intrusive ads.

What happens to your digital footprint when you die?

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

That’s why it’s important to think about this problem in advance and protect your identity online from the start. The last thing you or your relatives want is a cybercriminal gathering information from your digital footprints and stealing your identity after you die.

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