What Is a Digital Footprint?

There’s no such thing as online privacy. But here's how you can limit your exposure.

Written by Brian Nordli
What Is a Digital Footprint?
Image: Shutterstock
UPDATED BY
Matthew Urwin | May 10, 2024
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While the internet sometimes feels like an ephemeral place where you can anonymously hop from website to website, the truth is that everything you do creates a trail of data, or digital footprint, that can reveal a lot about you.

What Is a Digital Footprint?

A digital footprint, also called a digital shadow, is the personal data you leave behind while using the internet, like where you live, what products you buy, your email address and more. It includes information you actively share through social media posts, blog profiles and online forms, as well as data companies collect on you through cookies and tracking scripts.

“People often overlook the impact of their online life and how their online experiences contribute to a digital footprint,” said Stephanie Benoit-Kurtz, a principal security consultant for the IT services firm Trace3 and professor of IT for the University of Phoenix. “Even as you as an individual are super careful with your online social media presence, your digital footprint could be contributed to through almost no action of your own.”

Online privacy doesn’t really exist, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about the size of your digital footprint.

 

What Is a Digital Footprint?

A digital footprint is the trail of personal data you leave behind on the internet, whether you’re visiting websites, posting on social media, clicking on ads or sending emails.

“Some of that trail you leave knowingly. You choose to tell someone something and some of it you disclose implicitly through the websites you visit or the places you authenticate,” said Robin Wilton, director of internet trust for the nonprofit Internet Society. “And some of it, you’re not conscious you’re doing it, and it doesn’t occur to you that you’re leaving these traces.”

Active Digital Footprint

The information you leave knowingly on the web is called your active digital footprint. It’s composed of any data you choose to share online. This includes things like posting on social media, registering for a subscription service or newsletter and accepting cookies on a website.

Passive Digital Footprint

The data companies collect on you without your knowledge or approval is your passive digital footprint. This information is usually gathered through the use of third-party cookies and tracking scripts. These follow you around the web, collecting information on other sites you visit, how long you linger on a page and your personal information as you log in to other accounts.

Some of your information is also collected by data vendors who then sell it to other companies for advertising purposes. They may even broadcast your email, name and phone number online.

 

Why Does a Digital Footprint Matter?

Data protection hasn’t kept up with data collection, Benoit-Kurtz said. Unless a company receives a request to delete your personal information, it will likely sit in their databases long after you’ve moved on. And it’s likely not being protected as it should.

“Organizations keep data about individuals for an extraordinarily long period of time, and the challenge with that data is the more you have — especially the more obsolete data you have — the easier it is to lose control of that information,” Benoit-Kurtz said. 

While more recent data receives more attention and security, data that’s several years old is more likely to slip through the cracks and become exposed, she added. As a result, there are some notable risks to ignoring your digital footprint that are important to pay attention to.  

Cybercriminals Can Find Your Personal Information  

It doesn’t take much for hackers to piece together your identity from online fragments, said Jim Van Dyke, senior vice president of digital innovation at Sontiq, a TransUnion company. Van Dyke has first-hand experience examining the impact of data breaches serving as an expert witness during the trials on EquifaxFacebook, Yahoo and Anthem breaches.  

While those major breaches draw most of the headlines, more often than not, it’s the under-the-radar ones from your pharmacist or local government that pose the greatest risk, Van Dyke said. Those places can include your phone, email, ID number and social security number, making them ripe targets to steal identities.

“I’ve heard criminal testimony where they talk about what I call ‘trading up,’” Van Dyke said. “Somebody gets your phone number, they get your email address and then they go to a third-party site and get other information. They piece together a profile on you.” Then they can take that information and call your bank pretending to be you to access your accounts.

Doors Can Close Based on Your Digital Reputation 

The average person likely isn’t going to be haunted by their past posts, but the information you share online can still have an impact on your reputation.

Hiring managers rely heavily on a person’s social media posts. For better or worse, 71 percent of hiring managers believe a person’s social media profile can help them determine whether a candidate is the right fit for the company, according to a survey of 1,005 “hiring decision-makers” from employee provider Express Employment Professionals.     

It doesn’t matter how old some of those posts are either. While they may not reflect who you are today, they can still resurface thanks to algorithms on some social media websites that drum up old content and how easy it is to search someone’s profile, Wilton said.

Ads Can Target You Based on Your Online Activity

Companies can collect information about you based on your browsing history both on their site and the web via third-party cookies and then send you targeted ads based on that behavior.

Major browsers like Safari, Firefox and now Google Chrome have banned third-party cookies (though it may still have a limited impact on targeted ads). Still, the best way to avoid ads like that is to go to your browser settings and turn “send a do-not-track signal” on to limit some of the exposure other companies have on your web activity and block pop-up ads. 

Accessible Data Can Compromise Your Privacy

These days the proliferation of IoT devices and apps mean almost every aspect of people’s lives are recorded somewhere on the web. If companies don’t encrypt or protect that information to the highest standards, that can pose serious personal risk. For starters, it can reveal where you live, when you’re home and give them access to those devices.

There can be legal ramifications, too. Wilson offers the example of women who use period tracking apps in a post-Roe v. Wade America. Data on these apps can reveal whether a user is pregnant or not, while other phone apps can track a user’s location and pinpoint them to an abortion clinic. As a result, this can increase the user’s exposure and risk.

 

How Do I Protect My Digital Footprint?

While you can’t erase your digital footprint, you can focus on its size and exposure. Start by doing a quick search on yourself using your name and current city. This will show you just how public and accessible your personal information might be. 

“For the average person, I believe it will change your behavior in terms of what you’re sharing,” Van Dyke said. “You’ll see what’s out there and if you take a few minutes to think about how some of that data got out there, you’ll realize that it was something you shared.” 

Below are a few steps you can take to protect your personal data and limit your exposure. 

5 Steps You Can Take to Protect Your Digital Footprint

  1. Practice good digital hygiene.
  2. Adjust your browser settings.
  3. Maintain separate accounts.
  4. Muddle your digital profile.
  5. Request third-party websites to remove your personal information.

1. Practice Good Digital Hygiene

A quick and simple way to protect your digital footprint is to take basic precautions. The most obvious ones include creating unique passwords, using two-factor authentication and avoiding banking on unsecured networks like at a coffee shop or a hotel. Van Dyke recommends using different passwords, so not all your private accounts are exposed in the event of a data leak. 

As you use social media, consider turning your account private and limiting what information you share like your car, hometown or other identifiable information. A simple question to ask yourself is, ‘Would you put that information on a sign outside your home?’ If the answer is no, then don’t post it, Van Dyke said.

2. Adjust Your Browser Settings

When using an internet browser, Wilton suggests going into the settings and blocking third-party cookies and disabling pop-up ads. He also discourages saving passwords and other personal information like your address or credit card number. Blocking third-party cookies can go a long way in preventing some websites from tracking your data after leaving their page. 

To take your browser protection to the next level, Wilton recommends using separate browsers for different activities. For activity he isn’t worried about privacy, he’ll use a general browser like Safari. For more private information like banking, he’ll use a browser with more advanced security features like Firefox or Brave. This prevents companies from tailing him across the web and collecting information he doesn’t want to share.

3. Maintain Separate Accounts

Wilton suggests using separate accounts for different activities like having a work and personal email, which helps curate the information you receive. Wilton even maintains separate phones — one for calls and another for WhatsApp — and keeps both on pay-as-you-go SIM cards to limit how much data is collected on him. If you have one device, he recommends using WhatsApp in one context (say, work-related conversations) and Signal (perhaps for friends and family) in another. The same goes for browsing, too.

The goal is to prevent any one company from getting a complete picture of his social graph, which allows companies to build your digital footprint without collecting any information directly about you, thanks to your connections. With this method, they get a curated view of his personal information and who he associates with. As a result, Wilton can control what information he allows them to collect. 

4. Muddle Your Digital Profile 

Whenever you sign up for new accounts or subscriptions, they typically ask you for your name, email, birthday and even where you live. In some cases — like health insurance or on government documents — it’s vital that your information is accurate.

If you’re creating a blog profile or signing up for a retail website where that information isn’t necessary, Van Dyke suggests entering a fake birthday or city location. You can even sign up under different variations of your name. This can muddle your digital footprint, creating false leads that make it more difficult for hackers to get a complete picture of your identity.  

5. Request Third-Party Websites to Remove Your Personal Information

If you come across websites sharing your email or personal information, you can request that they remove it, Van Dyke said. You can either do this manually by messaging them or signing up for a service like DeleteMeKanary or OneRep. That said, if your information is out of date, you may want to consider leaving it up there in the spirit of subterfuge, Van Dyke added. 

“You end up with a healthy pollution profile, where you leave the outdated information out there and ask providers to take down your current information,” Van Dyke said.

It’s impossible to avoid leaving a digital trail behind you as you use the internet, but you can at least leave some false tracks to make it harder for companies and hackers to follow you.

 

What’s Being Done to Protect My Digital Footprint?

In many cases, the answer is not enough, Benoit-Kurtz said. Few companies encrypt or tokenize user data to prevent bad actors from doing anything with it once they get a hold of it. Still, there are some positive developments.

For starters, cybersecurity insurance firms are putting companies on notice that they have to do a better job protecting customer data or they could be charged with negligence, Benoit-Kurtz said. 

In addition, data regulations — like the General Data Protection Regulation in the European Union, and the California Consumer Privacy Act and Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act in the U.S. — give consumers the right to request companies delete personal information about them. The CCPA also gives consumers in California the right to opt out of their data being collected by third parties and fines companies if there’s been a breach.

Colorado, Connecticut and Utah have also signed similar privacy regulations, while other states are considering their own bills.

“So, there is an active awareness and even maybe an awakening of organizations that they need to do more to secure their data,” Wilton said.

When there is a breach, companies also have to send a notice to consumers. The problem is, those can be riddled with jargon and often downplay the risk associated with the breach, Van Dyke said. His advice: Assume a bad actor has your information, change your passwords and monitor your private accounts for fraudulent activity.

 

Can I Erase My Digital Footprint?

The short answer is no. Even if you were to cut the cord on all internet services, your data is still on profiles with local government agencies, medical facilities and so on.

And you might not want to fully remove your footprint. A curated profile that emphasizes your professional achievements, for instance, can help you elevate your reputation. Data that contributes to your digital footprint also drives a more personal browsing experience and powers apps that can help monitor health conditions.

Frequently Asked Questions

A digital footprint is the trail of data one leaves behind while using the internet. This can include intentional online activity like sending emails, sharing social media posts and entering personal information in a job application. However, it can also include data collected by third parties on a user’s online behavior without that person being aware of it.

Anyone with an internet connection can look up major parts of your digital footprint. When you submit personal details in a college or job application, employers and schools can use information like your name and email to easily find social media accounts, online forum posts and your activity in other digital spaces.

It’s impossible to delete your digital footprint, but you can take steps to reduce the amount of personal information available online. Updating old passwords, adjusting your privacy settings on social media and websites and deleting inactive accounts are a few ways to limit your digital footprint and protect your identity.

Your digital footprint can expose personal details that cybercriminals can use to compromise your identity and privacy. Posts tied to your social media accounts could also influence your reputation. And because colleges and employers check applicants’ online presence, your online activity could even impact your educational and career opportunities.

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Artificial Intelligence • Cloud • Internet of Things • Machine Learning • Analytics • Industrial
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