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What is your digital footprint?

Your digital footprint is always growing – so we explore how you can keep it under control

Just about every single internet user has, at some point, been faced with a hyper-personalised experience that seemingly defies all explanation. One of the most common of these is the oddly specific cases of targeted advertising where you may have simply uttered a word in passing to a friend over the dinner table, and forgotten all about it until an advert pops up on social media for that very topic.

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While the myth of your smartphone ‘listening’ to you has been thoroughly debuffed, the well-read internet user knows all too well the power of digital advertising companies and how easily you can be tracked online. The digital footprint we leave behind is how these firms are able to deduce our likes and dislikes, our friends, our enemies, and what restaurant we want to visit before we even know ourselves.

Indeed, it can be unsettling when these rare occurrences happen that remind us of the deep tracks we leave behind after every browsing session. Yes, there are ways around being tracked, but these often come at the expense of a much more laborious and scrupulous internet experience that many are simply happy to avoid at the expense of some personal data.

Not everyone is as carefree with handing over their data, however. It can be a disconcerting feeling to know that your entire life and personality can be mapped by any company with enough resources to do so. There are certainly a number of ways to go about managing your digital footprint and understanding how companies track you is key to reverse engineering their methods.

The definition of a digital footprint

We can demonstrate the way a digital footprint is generated by taking LinkedIn as an example. Once you fill out your profile, users can view certain pieces of information about you from the data that’s available, and make conclusions based on that data, whether or not you mean to make this possible. From your profile, it’s likely that users can ascertain your goals, ambitions and career history. Using other social media platforms, such as Facebook or Twitter, the same people can learn about your favourite pubs or restaurants, your closest friends and where you live. These examples are only a handful that demonstrate how filling out a few forms might generate wide-reaching digital footprint that reveals more about your life than you might be willing to.

Although you’ll inevitably publish pieces of information that you might eventually regret doing, hidden data points that can be harvested by apps and systems are more alarming. This layer is far more valuable than the digital nuggets you’ll have dropped as you migrate between social media platforms, and will certainly reveal more about yourself than you’re comfortable disclosing if successfully mined.

Each click on a website is registered as a data point, which is combined with other pieces of data including how often you’ve visited a certain page, and when. Adding items to your shopping basket, for example, will be registered and sometimes combined with likes and comments on social media platforms. It’s often why you’ll see ‘relevant ads’ on certain sites even though you haven’t referenced them once. These data points are combined and shared between organisations to process in a way that suits their business models.

This process isn’t inherently evil, and may often act in your favour by personalising your browsing experience so sites only showing you products you’ll be interested in purchasing, for example. There can also be moments, however, where you’ll be browsing and the level of personalisation you encounter, based on your digital footprint, becomes too personal.

The downsides of your digital footprint

While data can be used for your benefit, the same data can be used by hackers to fuel criminal enterprise. This may come by way of third-parties observing your method of payment, or what you may order while you’re out and about in real-life. Elements of your life you would normally keep private may be exposed through the exploitation of your digital footprint, inadvertently or otherwise, and subsequently used to blackmail you.

There are several ways you can minimise these risks, however, but first, you must take into account the moving parts. When it comes to your digital footprint, for instance, there are two types: active and passive.

Active digital footprint

A number of social media apps as seen on a smartphone display, including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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An 'active' digital footprint is the publicly traceable information that you share on the web, including Facebook updates, message board posts and Twitter rants. We rarely think about this type of digital footprint, but it can become a major headache in some circumstances.

The most obvious example is in employment; when hiring a new member of staff, the vast majority of companies now look up potential candidates' social media profiles. You may have a bulletproof CV, but if your Twitter feed is a stream of complaints and insults directed at your former employer, that's likely to be a one-way ticket to the rejection pile.

Similarly, many people have been undone when ill-advised social media comments came back to haunt them later. The UK's first youth police and crime commissioner, for example, lost her job in 2013 after prior tweets emerged that many people said were racist and homophobic. The government's Data Protection Act 2018, allows people to ask social media firms to remove posts they made in childhood, which should go some way to getting rid of embarrassing views people no longer hold.

Passive digital footprint

Your passive digital footprint is made up of the information that companies are harvesting behind the scenes, such as browsing data, IP addresses and purchasing habits. This is often collected without us even knowing about it, and is used to target advertisements, build customer profiles and more.

There are a number of ways to minimise how large this type of footprint grows, such as using proxies and VPNs, or using anonymising technologies such as Tor.

Thankfully, this data isn't usually publicly searchable, so it doesn't present much of an issue in day-to-day life - unless you're especially concerned with private companies like Google and Facebook tracking your internet activity.

Social media's security issue

The Twitter logo on a card surrounded by other cards with images such as fingerprints and locks

In the age of social media, it has become increasingly normalised to share even the most personal information online. From seemingly-innocent pet photos to relationship statuses, the internet is now brimming with clues that could lead to bad actors being able to stitch together a shockingly comprehensive view of your life.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with posting a video of you playing with your dog on Instagram. However, if the pooch’s name is mentioned and you also happen to be one of the 15% of Brits who use their pet's name as a password, this might put your personal data at risk.

Apart from potentially hacking your email, banking, or work account, posting details of your life to social media can also lead to burglary, fraud, or identity theft. That’s why you should abstain from posting information that could make it easy for criminals (as well as some nosy individuals) to locate your home address. Plenty of social media platforms offer the option to “tag” yourself at a given location when posting. However, this can also lead to stalkers being able to track your whereabouts, show up to where you are, and even follow you home. This is why it’s best to delay posting from your brunch or pub outing until after you’ve already left the premises. Although it may sound extreme, this tactic provides at least two benefits: it lets you focus on your friends and family instead of mindlessly scrolling and checking for likes, but also protects you from being followed in real life, as opposed to just online.

What is the best way to make sure your digital footprint doesn’t turn into a digital problem? The easiest solution is to ensure you don’t post anything potentially embarrassing or harmful on the web - a good rule to follow is to never post anything that you wouldn’t be comfortable with showing to your boss or being read aloud in a full room.

However, this is rarely possible all the time, however. Aside from this rule being heavily restrictive, there will always be factors outside of your control. This might be when someone uploads a questionable photo of you to their social media page, for example.

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Most social networks, you’ll be pleased to know, have adjustable privacy settings which help you limit who can see your profile and posts, and change whether or not new followers or friends are accepted automatically.

You can always use anonymous social media accounts if you’re worried about your online activities being linked to you. These can make use of entirely falsified information or personal details that aren’t linked to your professional life, like a maiden or middle name. This will help to make it harder for other users you don’t personally know to track you down.

Lastly, the EU’s ‘right to be forgotten’ law is the most extreme option for managing your digital footprint. The legislation allows users to request that search results which are deemed to be "inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant" be removed from search engines like Google. However, there needs to be a valid reason for the request, so the tactic doesn’t apply to the majority of cases.

The best guidance is to be sensible. A few pictures of you on a night out are unlikely to get you fired, but posting a lengthy rant about your boss might. Voice your opinions on Twitter if you like, but try and refrain from spewing hateful, abusive screeds. Exercise good judgement and common sense, and your digital footprint will likely be just fine.

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