Understanding Your Digital Footprint: What Is It and Why Does It Matter?

understanding your digital footprint featured image

In the digital age, your online presence is on par with your physical one. 

Your online presence leaves a digital footprint, akin to a trail of breadcrumbs that leads straight to your virtual doorstep, and sometimes, even your physical location.

This digital trail can have varying outcomes. On one hand, advertisers may follow it and bombard you with targeted ads, while on the other hand, cyber criminals can exploit this seemingly innocent trail and steal your digital identity.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a brighter side to it as well. 

The phenomenal rise of self-made social media influencers shows how a well-managed digital footprint can propel your career and lead to substantial success.

The key takeaway is properly managing and protecting your electronic footprint

That’s precisely why at Your Online Choices, we’re devoted to raising awareness about protecting your online identity. It’s a crucial part of ensuring your electronic footprint benefits you and doesn’t compromise your privacy.

To do so, you need to understand these key aspects of your digital footprint, including:

  • The type of information encompassed within your digital footprint
  • How to leverage it to your advantage while defending against potential threats
  • Why and how to manage and protect your data footprint instead of attempting to delete it
  • Security measures to regain control over your digital presence

What Is a Digital Footprint?

footprint art on rainy background

A digital footprint is the trail of data left behind when you use the internet. Think of it like a record of all the websites you’ve visited, emails you’ve sent, and information you’ve submitted online.

Your digital trail can affect your personal reputation or have professional implications, depending on its contents. 

It can be actively created through deliberate sharing of information about yourself, or passively, from data collected without your awareness.

Picture it like this: Your internet activity is like walking on the beach. Your footsteps are the passive digital shadow which you can’t help but leave behind. But, when you build a sand castle or leave behind a couple of Tim Tam wrappers, it’s deliberate. That’s your active virtual footprint.

We’ll go into how passive and active cyber footprints are created a little later on. 

For now, it’s important to understand which type of digital footprint can identify you. 

Personally Identifiable Digital Footprint

A personally identifiable digital footprint refers to the online data that can be directly linked to your identity

It includes data that uniquely identifies a person, including their full name, email address, phone number, social security number, or financial information. 

The table below offers a quick summary of the various types of personally identifiable information (PII) and their examples. 

Type Of PIIDescriptionExamples
Full NameThe complete name of an individualJohn Smith
Email AddressA unique address used for electronic communicationjohnsmith@example.com
Phone NumberA numerical sequence used for voice calls or messaging+61 4XX XXX XXX
Social Security NumberA unique identification number issued by the government123-45-6789
Financial InformationData related to an individual’s finances, such as bank account detailsCredit card numbers, bank info

Personally identifiable information (PII) is often subject to privacy and data protection regulations to ensure its secure handling and use since it’s the primary target for cybercrime.

For example, in Australia, we have the Federal Privacy Act of 1988 and the Australian Privacy Principles, which regulate how the private sector and government agencies handle personal information.

Anonymous Digital Footprint

An anonymous digital footprint comprises online data that doesn’t reveal or directly associate with an individual’s identity. It’s not personally identifiable and doesn’t disclose specific details that can be linked back to an identifiable person. 

This can include browsing habits, general demographic information, anonymous user profiles, or aggregated data that doesn’t identify individuals. 

Anonymous online footprints are often useful for analytics, market research, and statistical purposes while preserving individual privacy.

That being said, with a powerful enough algorithm or a large enough data set, determined researchers or hackers can still identify people from anonymised data

Moreover, confidentiality and data protection don’t guarantee against data breaches.

A 2022 data breaches report from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner found data breaches from malicious criminal attacks rose by 41% and made up 71% of all the breaches.

Our goal at Your Online Choices is to help you minimise the publicly available part of your digital identity and provide you with tips for managing your footprint.

Which begs the question, what exactly does your data footprint consist of?

What Information Is Included in a Digital Footprint?

The quick answer is literally every keystroke you’ve ever made on the internet is part of your electronic footprint.

Let’s look at some examples:

  • Browsing history
  • Logins and passwords
  • Online reviews and forum comments 
  • Credit card purchases and other online transactions
  • Subscriptions to newsletters and other online publications
  • Online shopping and entertainment, including online games
  • Location data from your smartphone and other smart devices
  • Social media accounts, even those using a false name or picture
  • Public records, such as voter registration rolls, property and court records
  • Biometric identifiers, including fingerprints, retinal scans, facial and voice recognition

How Is a Digital Footprint Created?

isometric cloud services with interconnected cloud computing infrastructure elements

All your communication and activity via the internet passes through a server. Whoever owns that server gets to choose whether to store your data and what to do with it.

Therefore, any activity or interaction you have on the internet leaves a digital record that websites, third party services, and government agencies save in their servers and databases

They do this passively, unbeknownst to you, or actively, when you get on their sites and share your data, agreeing to their terms of use.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the two ways in which a digital trail is created and how it affects your online safety.

Passive Digital Footprint

You affect the world by what you browse.

Tim Berners-Lee, Inventor of the World Wide Web

A passive digital footprint is generated automatically from your normal internet usage, when third party services and apps collect information without your knowledge.

  • IP address: Every time you connect to the internet, your device is assigned an IP (Internet Protocol) address, which is a unique identifier. Websites and online services log this IP address, creating a trace of your online activity.
  • Cookies: Websites often use cookies, which are small files stored on your device, to track your browsing behaviour. Cookies can record information such as the pages you visit, your preferences, and your interactions on the site.
  • Server logs: When you access a website or use an online service, your interactions are typically logged on the server hosting the site. This log can include details like the time of access, the pages visited, and the actions taken on the site.
  • Online advertising tracking: Advertisers monitor your online behaviour, including the websites you visit and the ads you interact with, to inform targeted ads based on your interests.
  • Social media analytics: Social media platforms collect data, for analytical purposes, on your engagement, including the posts you like, share, or comment on, as well as the profiles you follow.
  • Search engine records: Search engines like Google keep a record of the searches you perform and the links you click on. They use this information to improve search results and personalise your browsing experience.
  • Online purchases: When you make purchases online, the e-commerce platforms record your transaction details, such as the items bought, payment method, and shipping address, forming part of your passive digital footprint.
  • Internet of Things: The interconnected smart devices embedded with sensors, software, and connectivity capabilities collect data on their environment and users, connect with online services, and integrate with personal accounts.

Together, all these activities form the backdrop of your online presence and passively gather your information into a comprehensive digital record.

Active Digital Footprint

An active digital footprint refers to the intentional and deliberate sharing of information about oneself online. 

We share our information through both social and professional interactions, which include:

  • Social media presence: Engaging on social media platforms, including posting updates, sharing content, commenting on posts, and interacting with others
  • Digital content creation: Creating and sharing digital content such as blogs, videos, podcasts, artwork, or written pieces 
  • Online portfolio or website: Developing and maintaining a personal website or online portfolio to showcase work, skills, or achievements
  • Professional networking: Participating in professional networking platforms like LinkedIn, connecting with colleagues, joining industry-specific groups, and sharing professional insights
  • Online discussions and forums: Taking part in online discussions, forums, or communities related to specific interests or topics
  • Online courses and learning platforms: Enrolling in and actively participating in online courses or educational platforms
  • Online activism: Engaging in online activism or advocacy efforts by sharing information, taking part in campaigns, and supporting causes 

The table below provides insights into the impact of digital footprints, highlighting aspects such as privacy, personalization, reputation, security, data breach exposure, and opportunities.

AspectPassive Footprint ImpactActive Footprint Impact
PrivacyPotential data collection without awareness or consentIntentional sharing of personal information
PersonalizationTargeted ads based on browsing behaviorTailored recommendations and content based on shared interests
ReputationOnline reputation affected by tracked activities and dataProfessional image shaped by digital presence and engagement
SecurityPotential vulnerabilities through data collection and trackingRisks associated with sharing personal and sensitive information online
Data Breach ExposureInclusion of personal data in passive footprint increases data breach riskPotential exposure of personal information through active online sharing
OpportunitiesLimited opportunities for control over passive footprintEnhanced networking, visibility, and professional opportunities

How Long Do Digital Footprints Last?

Your digital footprint is like energy. It lasts forever.

Creating a digital footprint is nearly effortless, but removing it is incredibly challenging because of the following reasons:

  • Aggressive customer retention: Many websites employ aggressive tactics to retain customer data, making it frustrating or even impossible to delete your accounts completely.
  • Unindexed data: A significant portion of the data collected about you exists in databases that search engines can’t index. As a result, it becomes difficult to locate and remove this data.
  • De-identification rather than deletion: When you delete your data, companies often choose to de-identify it instead of fully removing it. This means your data is stripped of personally identifiable information but is still retained as part of their historical records.
  • Data transfers and mergers: Companies frequently merge or get bought, resulting in your data changing hands without your knowledge or a way to trace it. This transfer of data ownership can expose you to potential privacy risks.

Due to these factors, completely erasing your electronic footprint is a daunting task, as remnants of your information may persist despite deletion attempts. 

For this reason, at Your Online Choices, we advocate for good cybersecurity habits to help you protect your data and ensure that your online presence is positive and secure

Definition: Unindexed data refers to information that exists in databases or systems that are not easily searchable or indexed by traditional search engines.

What Are the Benefits of Managing Your Online Presence?

two people shaking hands

There’s a popular saying that goes, “If you didn’t post it, did it really happen?”

And while it’s a tongue-in-cheek way of highlighting the pervasiveness of social media, it also underscores the major benefit of a digital footprint.

It’s your way of saying, “I was here!”, similar to how kids would carve their initials on benches and trees.

Having an online footprint can have significant professional implications, allowing you to connect with others and make your mark on the world.

With a digital footprint, you can contribute to:

  • Career opportunities: A strong digital footprint can attract potential employers and recruiters who may discover your professional profiles, such as on LinkedIn.
  • Networking and collaboration: Your digital presence allows you to connect with like-minded individuals, professionals, and experts in your field. This can lead to collaborations that can enhance your projects, research, or business endeavours.
  • Personal branding: A well-managed digital footprint helps you shape your personal brand. You can showcase your expertise, passion, and unique qualities through blog posts, social media content, or online portfolios, positioning yourself as an authority in your domain.
  • Business and entrepreneurship: A positive digital footprint can drive visibility and credibility for your business or startup. Through websites, social media profiles, and online reviews, you can attract customers, investors, and strategic partnerships.
  • Learning and education: Your digital presence can facilitate learning opportunities. You can join online communities, take part in webinars, access educational resources, or even collaborate on research projects with individuals across the globe, expanding your knowledge and horizons.
  • Personal influence: An influential digital footprint can enable you to advocate for causes you care about, engage in meaningful discussions, and raise awareness on social, environmental, or political issues that matter to you.
  • Creative pursuits: Digital platforms offer avenues for artists, writers, musicians, and other creatives to showcase their work, gain recognition, and connect with audiences worldwide. 
  • Global reach: Whether you are an entrepreneur, content creator, or professional, a well-crafted digital footprint can extend your reach beyond geographical boundaries, connecting you with individuals and opportunities from diverse backgrounds.

What Are the Risks of Having a Digital Footprint?

magnifying lens with aspects of online privacy

The biggest concerns with your virtual footprint are the risks to online privacy and the ubiquity of data tracking. 

Who is accessing, tracking and using your data?

Herein lies the challenge. When you share information online, it’s difficult to know which third parties have access to your data or when your personal information has been compromised in a data breach. 

Let’s look at some risks of having an accessible digital record:

  • Privacy breaches: Your personal information can be exposed to unauthorised individuals or entities, leading to privacy violations, identity theft, or fraud.
  • Online harassment and cyberbullying: Having a digital presence increases the risk of being targeted for online harassment, cyberbullying, or stalking.
  • Personal reputation damage: Inappropriate or negative content associated with your digital footprint can harm your personal or professional reputation.
  • Data exploitation: Companies and organisations may collect and exploit your data for targeted advertising, profiling, or other purposes without your knowledge or consent.
  • Social engineering attacks: Cybercriminals can use information from your electronic footprint to craft convincing phishing attempts or scams to manipulate or deceive you.
  • Limited control over data: Once your information is online, it’s challenging to control who has access to it and how it is used, even if you attempt to delete or remove it.
  • Discrimination and exclusion: Your digital footprint can be used to discriminate against you based on personal characteristics, such as race, gender, religion, or political views.
  • Legal and regulatory issues: Sharing certain types of content or engaging in illegal activities online can result in a violation of terms of service and legal consequences.

Whatever you post or share online can have lasting consequences, both positive and negative. It all boils down to how you go about managing and protecting your digital identity.

Learn More: Five Top Tips To Help You Manage Your Online Privacy

How Can You Manage Your Digital Footprint?

Managing your footprint is essential for ensuring online security and reputation. It involves actively controlling and shaping the information associated with your online presence and staying up-to-date with the latest cybersecurity measures.

Here are a few simple measures you can implement to manage your online presence:

  • Regularly review privacy settings: Adjust the privacy settings on your social media accounts, online platforms, and digital devices to limit the visibility of your personal information and posts.
  • Be selective with sharing: Think twice before sharing personal information, photos, or opinions online. Consider the potential impact on your reputation and privacy.
  • Practise responsible social media use: Be mindful of what you post on social media platforms. Avoid sharing inappropriate or controversial content and regularly audit and delete old posts that may negatively affect your personal or professional life. 
  • Monitor online mentions: Regularly search for your name, username, or other identifiers to see what information is publicly available about you. Set up Google Alerts or use social media monitoring tools to receive notifications when your name or relevant keywords appear online.
  • Be mindful of online interactions: Think before you engage in online discussions, comments, or debates. Practise respectful and constructive communication to maintain a positive online presence.
  • Educate yourself and stay informed: Keep up with the latest online privacy practices, security measures, and social media policies. Stay informed about emerging technologies, trends, and potential risks associated with your digital footprint.
  • Regularly review and update permissions: Review the permissions you have granted to third-party apps and services. Revoke access for apps or services you no longer use or trust.
  • Limit data collection: Be cautious about sharing personal information with websites and online services. Minimise the amount of data you provide and consider opting out of data collection practices.

Key Takeaway: Managing your digital footprint is crucial for online security and reputation. Control privacy settings, be selective with sharing, monitor online mentions, and stay informed about best practices and potential risks.

What Can You Do to Protect Your Online Presence?

hands resting on computer keyboard

A digital footprint is inevitable because all identifying information feeds into your digital identity. Since you can’t opt out entirely, it’s crucial to adopt security measures that protect your digital footprint from tracking and malicious attacks.

The idea is to incorporate these cybersecurity habits gradually into your online activity:

  • Delete old accounts that are no longer in use.
  • Use a VPN or browser isolation for added security.
  • Use search engines to check your digital footprint regularly.
  • Avoid disclosing private information while using public Wi-Fi.
  • Keep your software up to date to protect against vulnerabilities.
  • Create and maintain strong passwords for all your online accounts.
  • Consider using a password manager to manage your passwords securely.
  • Be cautious about your online activities and control the data that can be gathered.
  • Avoid using social sign-ins, such as Facebook, to reduce the risk of being hacked.
  • Limit the data you share and avoid oversharing on social media and unsafe websites.
  • Stay vigilant against phishing attempts and avoid clicking on links or downloading attachments from unknown sources.
  • Stay informed about emerging technologies and security measures, such as browser isolation, steganography, NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and XDR (extended detection and response).
  • Consider using a good antivirus software that offers technical support and additional security features, such as integrated intrusion blocking.

Taking Control of Your Digital Footprint

Your digital footprint is an important and inescapable aspect of your online life. 

Short of chucking your smartphone and moving to the mountains, you can’t entirely avoid leaving a digital shadow.

Therefore, knowing what information goes into your electronic footprint, how it’s collected, and how long it lasts can help you understand the risks and benefits associated with it.

At Your Online Choices, we’re particularly interested in how you can protect your digital information and limit your electronic footprint to the best of your ability. 

We have a detailed knowledge base to guide you through these security measures ranging from how to choose and use VPNs to how to delete your existing digital record on social media.

The first step to taking control of your digital footprint is arming yourself with knowledge, and for that Your Online Choices is here to help you stay safe online.

Dale Williams

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