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What Is a Digital Footprint, and Why Is It Important?

Lukas Grigas
Cybersecurity Content Writer

Every social media post, every like, every search, and every click you make online leaves a trace. Right now, just by reading this blog post, you're adding to your digital footprint — a permanent record of your online presence that can be wielded in various ways for various reasons. Sounds somewhat spooky and confusing? Well, today, we're shedding some light on the concept of digital footprint.

What is a digital footprint

Your digital footprint is all the data that you leave online whenever you use the internet. Think of it as a trail of breadcrumbs you leave each time you send out an email, use social media platforms, search for something online, click an ad, shop online, or submit personal information.

All the information included in your digital footprint is linked to your IP address, allowing markets, insurers, and other organizations to create a profile based on your online behaviors and habits. As you can imagine, all the information in your digital footprint is then used to target you with personalized ads, surveys, and other online content.

How is your digital footprint created?

Your digital footprint is created at the same time you engage in online activities, whether it's via your computer, phone, or tablet. However, it's not always evident that you're adding to your digital footprint. Some websites gather information about your online activities with the help of cookies they place on your devices. Apps can also collect data without you being fully aware of what's going on. Essentially, your digital footprint is created by you navigating through the online world. However, digital footprints can be split into two categories based on how data is collected. The two categories are active digital footprints and passive digital footprints.

Active digital footprint

An active digital footprint is a type of footprint that is in your control. An active digital footprint comprises all the information that you choose to share online. Let's say you share a status update on LinkedIn or a photo on Facebook or engage in an online discussion; you're actively sharing personal information on your own accord, which can then be used to create or add to your digital footprint.

Passive digital footprint

As the name suggests, a passive digital footprint is a type of footprint created passively. Essentially, it is the polar opposite of an active digital footprint, created from data gathered by websites you visit and apps you use. Usually, the data collected includes how much time you spent on a website or using the app, the most used parts of the site or app, your IP address.. The information is then used to create a digital footprint to understand your habits regarding the app or website and then serve you targeted ads or improve the service.

Examples of digital footprint

Your digital footprint can increase in a number of ways. Hundreds, if not thousands upon thousands, of data points comprise your digital footprint. Here are some examples of online activities that contribute to the growth of your footprint.

Online Shopping Data

  • Purchasing something online

  • Signing up for coupons or discount deals

  • Downloading, installing, and using shopping apps

  • Creating an account on an online shopping site

Financial Data

  • Using online banking apps and services

  • Engaging in online investments.

  • Ordering and using a new credit card

  • Using payment apps

Social Media Data

  • Using social media platforms on any of your devices

  • Logging into other websites or online services with your social media credentials

  • Sharing photos or videos on social media

  • Leaving comments on social media

Health and Fitness Data

  • Using fitness apps

  • Using an online health care portal

  • Signing up for a gym with your email address

Online Reading and News Data

  • Signing up for newsletters

  • Reading articles on a news website or app

  • Reposting articles you've read

  • Clicking ads on a new website or app

These are just a few activities that contribute to the growth of your digital footprint, and as you can imagine, doing pretty much anything online increases your digital footprint.

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Why is your digital footprint important

Our digital footprints are here to stay — essentially, they're permanent and can have a lasting impact on your reputation, relationships, and even employment opportunities.

Potential employers can check your digital footprint before making a hiring decision. Your posts and photos on social media intended for friends and relatives can spiral out into the public eye. In a worst-case scenario, your digital footprint could lead to hacked accounts, stolen data, financial losses, or even identity theft.

How to protect your digital footprint

Many people try to limit and manage their digital footprint by being aware of their actions online, and so control the scale of data that can be gathered. Here are some tips on managing and protecting your digital footprint.

Make use of privacy settings

Most online accounts have privacy settings to control how much of your data is shared publicly or with third parties. Take the time to review the privacy settings on your online accounts and adjust them accordingly. Additionally, check the privacy and security settings on your browser and make them work for you.

Think before you share

Any social media post, message in the comment section, or any piece of information you share online grows your digital footprint. If you strive to manage your digital footprint, think before you share anything online.

Terminate old accounts

These days, everybody has those old and long-forgotten accounts. Deleting them once and for all is another way that you can reduce your digital footprint. Thanks to data regulation laws, you can even contact the company with which you had the account and request deletion of your data from its servers.

Stay away from suspicious and potentially malicious websites

Entering and interacting with a malicious website can have disastrous outcomes. Imagine you land on a faux shopping website and make an actual purchase. In such an instance, your digital footprint, which in such a case would entail your credit card data, would be in the hands of bad actors. So always be sure to double-check the website's reputation, especially if you're creating a new account and will be sharing personally identifiable information.

Review privacy settings on your phone

Apps are a fact of life. We've got an app for everything. Unfortunately, we rarely think that the apps we use daily collect our data. To minimize what the apps can track and send out, review and adjust your privacy settings on your smartphone.

Create strong passwords and use a password manager

Strong passwords are crucial for your overall security and privacy online. Passwords protect our accounts and the data associated with those accounts from bad actors wishing to make a profit. Check your passwords and make sure they are strong and unique. Change any weak ones and remember a strong password should be at least 12 characters long and have a healthy mix of special characters, numbers, and letters. Also consider using a password manager. A password manager is a tool that can securely store your passwords and improve your overall online experience with features such as autofill and autosave.

Use a VPN

Another way to control your digital footprint is by limiting how much of your data companies get in the first place. A VPN encrypts your online traffic and hides your IP address from third-party servers.

Don’t use Google or Facebook to log in to other websites

Logging into websites and apps via your Google or Facebook account can be a quick and smooth experience. It may be effortless, but there's the other side of the coin. Every time you access a site or some other online service using Google or Facebook credentials, you give that service permission to access and use your Google or Facebook data, which ensures that your digital footprint continues growing.

Refrain from using public Wi-Fi hotspots

Public Wi-Fi hotspots are infamous for their, at best, mediocre security. Connecting to such a network is inherently risky because you have no idea what security controls are in place and who else is on the network.

Regularly update your software

Software updates are intended to improve user experience and patch potential security vulnerabilities. Having outdated software makes you a preferred target for bad actors always looking for easy access to data.

Bottom line

Everything you do and every action you take online leaves a trail and grows your digital footprint. As we increasingly rely more on the internet for work, leisure, and the activities of daily life, our digital footprints will inevitably grow and may even pose more cybersecurity risks. Therefore, to maintain privacy and security while navigating the online world, it is crucial to be aware of your online actions.

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