Digital Footprint 101

Your digital footprint is a sum of all the information you willingly or unwillingly leave behind you online...

digital footprint

We live in a data-hungry world, with almost every company you interact with online gathering information about you. Some websites may store your IP address and corresponding location details along with the type of browser and device you’re using. At the same time, the likes of Google and Facebook take a few steps beyond that and can even track you down across the Internet. You see, these two companies — and they are not alone in this game — have their (JavaScript) code placed on millions of websites and know what kind of content you like reading, watching and more. The combination of all the data collected about you is your digital footprint. In this article, we’ll explore it in more detail starting by defining the term.

What is a digital footprint?

The digital footprint is defined as a set of traceable online activities of a specific digital entity. It 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).

We all have a digital footprint as it allows us to build an online presence, establish a reputation, and influence others. On the other hand, a digital footprint also raises serious privacy concerns — as it enables companies to tailor ads to your/our preferences, while strangers can use the footprint to observe us online discreetly.

We always leave a digital footprint

We can’t hide from our digital footprint though we can make it harder, if not impossible, for companies to track us down for advertising purposes.

Every time we visit a website or access a service, we leave a small bit of information that is a part of our digital footprint. It’s just how the client-server interaction happens, with the server operator knowing who’s accessing their server.

With a VPN, we could hide our real IP address and location, but at some point – we may want to book a place at a local restaurant and then the service will know in which city we currently are — no matter what our IP address says. And the same goes for various services that require us to log in. They may see that we are connected to the Internet from a different location, but they may ultimately allow us to sign in. And from that point on, they will see what we’re doing on their site.

Generally speaking, websites and services collect these details about their users/visitors:

  • Location
  • Time of the website visit
  • How long you spent on the page
  • The movement, speed, and direction of your mouse
  • What device you’re using
  • What software (operating system and browser) you’re using

Those details alone are not worth much to advertisers, but when collected during a prolonged period – they scream gold. More on that in a moment.

Why is your digital footprint important?

As a sum of all your interactions on the Internet, your digital footprint says a lot about you — and could be used against you.

Beyond serving you “personalized ads,” companies could also further profile you to potentially provide you with worse service terms. For instance, a person looking for cancer-related information may be offered an insurance policy that has a higher premium. That person may not know that the insurance company did its research and sees that there could be an increased risk by offering you a lower-cost policy.

You may think nothing is wrong with that, but there is one major problem – most users are NOT AWARE that what they do online is being collected and then processed to benefit large organizations. And these organizations are seldom charities; quite the contrary.

What does your digital footprint say about you?

A digital footprint of many of us includes details such as:

  • Social media profiles. It could also include personal information, what we like to chat about, whom we follow, what topics we “like” and “dislike” and more. In case you don’t think these details are important, you should know that this information alone has propelled Facebook to become one of the biggest companies in the world.
  • Internet browsing history. This is fairly similar as it can tell potential advertisers (and other interested parties) what we’re up to these days. It can also show them our “evolution” and predict the kind of products and services we may want in the future. The algorithms have already seen similar scenarios and know which “buttons to push” to make us buy.
  • Email. You may think that your email is your private thing, and to an extent, it is. Except if you’re on a “most wanted” list or an important politician, no one will read your email — except for the algorithm. Google is already doing that and is serving us “related” ads in Gmail. And so do other “free email” providers.
  • Online shopping. It is said that it is cheaper to sell something to an existing customer than to get a new one. In that sense, smart online retailers will take your shopping history against you – and sell you stuff you may need based on your previous purchases.
  • Online forums. Every time you take part in online discussions, you leave a digital footprint. Again, these details alone don’t mean much — but when combined with other information major companies have on you, they get a more compelling picture of your likes and dislikes.
  • Online gaming. It, too, leaves a digital footprint and can even tell the gaming server operator how “addicted” you are to their game, so they may be able to push you to buy upgrades, virtual items, other games, and more.

We’ve just scratched the surface here, but you get the idea – everything you do online counts. That being said, let us try to answer the next question…

Can you delete your digital footprint?

Since your digital footprint pretty much equals your online presence, it is impossible to completely remove it. Instead, you will have to ask every individual company and website you came in contact with to delete your data. Sometimes that’s possible — in the EU, there’s even such a law (right to be forgotten) — but in many cases, that is not an option.

One of the reasons is that you (all of us) may not be aware of all the companies we came in contact with while browsing the web — with many websites hosting JavaScripts from third parties that are used to collect data on all of us. Google Analytics and Facebook Pixel are among the top culprits in this area, but they are definitely not the only game in town.

Luckily, services like Incogni can help by opting out of data brokers automatically. Still, even they can’t hide every trace of you on the Internet.

So instead of trying to remove your digital footprint, try controlling it.

How to control your digital footprint?

There are several things you could do to get the upper hand online, such as:

1. Adjust social media privacy settings. Take your time to go through all the options in the Privacy sections of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites. You’ll want them to track you as little as possible. They will, however, have to track you in some fashion in order to let you use their services for free.

2. Go easy on sharing. You should know that everything you post/share online is analyzed by algorithms in order to create a better digital profile of you. So make sure to think before pressing/tapping that “Share” button. You never know how things you post online could be used against you.

3. Delete social media accounts you don’t use. Another one related to social media. There is no need to keep social media accounts you don’t use. Even if you don’t use them, they still keep a portion of information about you and provide that intel to interested advertisers. There is no need for this, so make sure you don’t have unused accounts.

4. Use a VPN. It will encrypt all traffic flowing between your device(s) and the rest of the Internet. Also, it will hide your location by providing you with a different IP address, and this could also help you access parts of the Internet that may not be accessible to you from all places (like in a school or at your workplace). This could be especially handy when visiting other countries that may censor parts of the web.

Now that you know a few things about your digital footprint, you should be better suited to use the Internet in a more secure manner. The main thing to learn from this article is to use your brain before doing anything online, as it could have consequences down the road. There is no need to share stuff left and right and let everyone target you with ads. And then more ads. Privacy is your right, so don’t take it lightly.