Digital footprint – meaning and definition
A digital footprint (also known as a data shadow or electronic footprint) is the data trail that you leave behind when you use the Internet. This includes websites you visit, emails you send and information you submit online. The digital footprint can be used to track a person’s online activities and devices. As an internet user, you can leave your footprint either actively or passively.
What is a digital footprint?
Whenever you use the internet, you leave a trail of information known as your digital footprint. A digital footprint is created, for example, when you post a post on social media, subscribe to a newsletter, submit an online review or buy something online.
But sometimes it’s not so obvious that you’re leaving a data trail. For example, websites can track your activity by installing cookies on your device, and apps can collect data without your knowledge. Once you give an organization access to your data, they could resell your data or give it to third parties. Or worse, your personal information could be stolen in a data breach.
In connection with the digital footprint, the terms “active” and “passive” are often used.
Active digital footprint
With an active digital footprint, the user has willingly disclosed data about themselves, for example by posting on social networks or participating in an online forum. When a user logs into a website using a registered username or profile, all of their contributions become part of their active digital footprint. Other activities that leave an active digital footprint include filling out an online form, e.g. B. to subscribe to a newsletter, or to accept cookies in the browser.
Passive digital footprint
A passive digital footprint is created when information about a user is collected without their knowledge. This is the case, for example, when websites track how often a user visits this page, where they come from and what their IP address is. This process runs in secret and the user is not necessarily aware of it. Other examples of passive footprints include social media sites and advertisers using your likes, shares and comments to build a profile of you and target you with specific content.
Why are digital footprints important?
You shouldn’t ignore your digital footprint for the following reasons:
- The footprint is fairly permanent, and once data is public—or even semi-public, as is the case with Facebook posts—the owner has little control over what others do with it.
- A digital footprint can determine a person’s digital reputation and is now considered to be just as important as off-net reputation.
- Employers can check candidates’ digital footprints, especially on social media, before hiring anyone. Colleges and universities can check the digital footprint of applicants for a university place before accepting them.
- Texts and photos that you post online can be misinterpreted or altered and thereby appear unintentionally offensive.
- Content intended for a private group can be shared widely and potentially destroy relationships and friendships.
- Cyber criminals can use your digital footprint to phish to gain access to accounts or impersonate your information.
It is therefore worthwhile to think about what your digital footprint says about you. Many people try to control their digital footprint by restraining their online activities so that there is no data to collect in the first place.
Examples of the digital footprint
There are hundreds of elements that can become part of an internet user’s digital footprint. Examples of activities that can leave a digital footprint:
- Shopping on online store websites
- Register for vouchers or set up a user account
- Download and use of shopping apps
- Newsletter sign-up for certain brands
- Use of a mobile banking app
- Buy or sell stocks
- Subscription to financial guides and blogs
- Opening a credit card account
- Use of social media on your computer or devices
- Sign in to other websites using social media credentials
- contact with friends and acquaintances
- Share information, data and photos with your contacts
- Joining a dating website or app
Reading online news
- Subscribing to an online news source
- Reading articles in a news app
- Subscribe to a publication’s newsletter
- Reposting articles and information you’ve read
health and fitness
- Deploying fitness trackers
- Use of apps in healthcare
- Register your email address with a gym
- Subscribing to health and fitness blogs
Protect your digital footprint
Since employers, co-workers and others can track your online identity, it’s important to keep your digital footprint in mind. Here are a few tips on how to protect your personal information and keep an eye on your online reputation.
Check your own digital footprint using search engines
Enter your name in search engines. Include your first and last name and alternative spellings. If your name has changed, you should search for both the current name and the previous name. You can use the results of this online search to see what information about you is publicly available. If any of the results paint you in a bad light, you should contact the site administrator with a request to remove the listing. Google Alerts lets you keep track of your name.
Reduce the number of information sources that mention you.
Real estate websites and whitepages.com, for example, may have more information about you than you’d like. These websites often contain very personal information such as telephone number, address and age. If you do not agree to this, you can write to the website operator and request the deletion of this data.
Give as little information as possible
Every time you share your personal information, you increase your digital footprint. This also increases the risk that that someone will misuse your data or become the victim of a data breach themselves, putting your data in the wrong hands. So, before you next submit a form, think about whether it’s really worth it. Can I get this information or this service in another way without releasing my data?
Check your privacy settings
Social media privacy settings allow you to control who can read your posts. Go through these settings and set them to a level that is acceptable to you. For example, on Facebook, you can limit posts to friends or create your own lists of people who can see specific posts. However, these settings only protect your privacy within this website.
Don’t reveal too much about yourself on social media
Social media is a very easy way to connect with others, but it can also overdo it. It is best to keep your whereabouts, travel plans or other personal information to yourself. Do not include a phone number or email address in the resume you post on social media. Also, “liking” your own bank, health insurance company, pharmacy, etc. is not a good idea. Cybercriminals could use this to glean clues about your most important accounts.
Avoid unsafe websites
With every online transaction, make sure you’re dealing with a secure website. The URL should start with https:// and not http://. The “s” here stands for “secure” and means that the site has a security certificate. You should also see a lock icon on the far left of the address bar. Never enter confidential data, especially payment data, on unsecured websites.
Be careful when entering private data in public WLAN networks
A public Wi-Fi network is inherently less secure than your private one because you don’t know who set it up or who is still reading. If possible, do not send any personal information when surfing the Internet over a public Wi-Fi network.
Delete old accounts
One way to reduce your digital footprint is to delete old accounts – for example, social media profiles that you no longer use or newsletters that you no longer read. By cleaning up unused accounts, you reduce the risk of becoming a victim of a data breach.
Secure passwords and use of a password manager
With a strong password you can ensure internet security. A strong password is long – at least 12 characters, ideally longer – and consists of a mixture of upper and lower case letters plus special characters and numbers. The more complex and intricate your password is, the harder it is to crack. Generate, store and manage all your passwords in one secure online account with a password manager . Never reveal your passwords, even in a private context. Don’t share them with others and don’t write them down. Also, don’t use the same password for all your accounts and remember to change it regularly.
Keep an eye on health insurance data
Practice good data hygiene by regularly checking your health insurance data. Identity thieves target medical and health insurance records as well as your financial records. If criminals seek medical treatment on your behalf, their medical records could become entangled with yours.
No login using Facebook data
Logging into websites and apps using your Facebook details is convenient. However, by doing so, you are giving the website you log into via Facebook permission to collect your Facebook user data, putting your personal information at further risk.
Keep your software up to date
Outdated software can contain a wealth of data traces. And if this is no longer updated, cybercriminals could gain access to your devices and data. Because without updates, security gaps arise over time that cybercriminals like to exploit. You can prevent this by keeping your software up to date. Older software is usually more vulnerable to hacking.
Also check your mobile devices
Set up a passcode for your mobile device so that if you lose it, others cannot access it. Read the user agreement when installing an app. Many apps disclose what information they collect and what it is used for. Personal data such as email, location and online activities could be affected. Verify that you consent to the sharing of this information before installing the app.
Think first, then post
What you post or say on the internet is a reflection of who you are, as is what others say about you. Parts of your digital footprint such as uploaded photos, comments on blogs, YouTube videos and Facebook posts may reflect you in a very different light than you would like to be seen. Take an active role in shaping your digital footprint by only posting things that reinforce the impression you want others to have.
React immediately after a data breach
If you suspect that the security of your data has been compromised, you should act immediately. In the event of a financial loss, contact your bank or credit card provider directly to report the violation. Change any passwords that may have been hacked. If you have used this password on multiple accounts, change it there as well.
Use a VPN
You can protect your digital footprint by going online through a Virtual Private Network (VPN). With a VPN, your IP address remains hidden, making your online activities virtually untraceable. This protects your privacy on the Internet and prevents websites from installing cookies that save your browsing history.