What is a digital footprint? How to protect yourself online, and keep your data from being used against you

Dave Johnson
·5 min read
professional working from home on laptop smartphone
It's important to know what kind of traces, or digital footprint, your online activities leave behind. Yagi Studio/Getty Images
  • Your digital footprint refers to all the personal data and information available about you online.

  • Your active digital footprint includes your emails, social media posts, and other messages with your name attached.

  • Your passive digital footprint is information you unintentionally leave behind, like your IP address.

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As the internet is deeply entwined in almost every aspect of modern life, it's difficult to avoid having some kind of presence online.

The degree to which you leave traces of your online activities is referred to as your digital footprint - it's akin to the evidence you might leave behind after going camping, such as remnants of a campfire, your dinner scraps, and the path you carved in the woods while hiking.

In the case of your digital footprint, the evidence you leave behind is data. This footprint tends to fall into two major categories, depending on whether you're leaving an "active" digital footprint or a "passive" one.

The different types of digital footprints

An active digital footprint is intentional and purposeful. This is data you leave on the internet because you intended to do so.

Here are some common examples of intentional data:

  • Emails and text messages

  • Online forms you fill out and submit

  • Comments you've left on articles or videos

  • Blog posts and personal websites

  • Social media posts, status updates, photos, and videos

Keep in mind that while you might have intentionally created that data, you might not have intended for it to last forever, or for it to be available for other people to use in ways you hadn't intended.

woman posting on social media on smartphone
If your social media accounts are public, anyone can view and access your personal photos. AJ_Watt/Getty Images

Likewise, your passive digital footprint is created by your unintentional data - the data you leave behind without meaning to, or without having a choice to.

Unintentional data can be:

  • Cookies and tracking data created by your web browsing activity

  • Geolocation data generated when you use maps and other apps that can track your location

  • Your IP address, email address and other personal information that can be associated with your online activities

    google maps app
    Traces of data are left behind when you use navigation apps on your phone. Nick Bastone/Business Insider

The risks of leaving a digital footprint

Your digital footprint can tell others a lot about you. In some cases, there's a legitimate use for the data, such as website owners and advertisers gleaning information about your online habits and purchasing preferences to better accommodate your needs.

using laptop at home typing
Nearly every website on the internet tracks you in some way. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

But your digital footprint can also be used by hackers, criminals, scam artists, and other malicious actors. Here are a few of the most significant risks associated with the data you leave behind online.

  • Identity theft: Perhaps the single biggest risk people face online is having their identity stolen, which can be done if enough personal and sensitive information is left online.

  • Spear phishing and other fraud: Criminals can sometimes glean enough information about a person to target them for fraud. In spear phishing, a criminal can contact a victim and claim to be someone they know (boss, co-worker, relative) to ask for money or other valuables.

  • Advertising: This is generally a legitimate use of your digital footprint, but many people object to being tracked for advertising purposes.

  • Employer investigations: Potential (or current) employers can crawl your social media posts and other online activity to gain insights into your personal life. Depending on how active you are online, your private life might be visible to the public. Some employers might be turned off by recreational alcohol and drug use, profanity, political or religious posts, and so on.

How to manage and minimize your digital footprint

It's inevitable that you'll leave some sort of digital footprint in your wake online, but there are steps you can take to minimize it.

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Avoid using your primary email address when creating accounts with websites and commenting platforms. You can create disposable email addresses to make it harder for someone to develop a cohesive picture of all the sites and services you use.

  • Be aware of the privacy settings on your social media accounts. You probably don't need your personal life to be completely public, so don't overshare. Consider restricting your Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram posts to friends or close contacts only and stop using social media platforms that don't allow you to do that.

  • Separate your personal and professional personas. It's a good idea to use different email addresses for purely personal activities and for job hunting and other professional tasks. That also makes it harder for employers to research your social media presence.

    woman in office using smartphone
    It's best to keep your professional accounts separate from your private, personal ones. Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
  • Manage your reputation. Think about what your public posts, comments, and online messages say about you. Use proper spelling and grammar, avoid being rude or profane and don't share too much about yourself. Imagine what a potential employer would think about you if the company saw what you're posting.

  • Opt out of letting websites sell your data. Increasingly, websites are adding privacy tools that let you opt out of having your personal information sold to advertisers or shared with partners. You'll need to hunt for these controls right now, if they exist at all. You can force Google to stop personalizing your ads using its Ad Settings page, for example. You can do the same thing on Spotify by turning off tailored ads on its Privacy page.

  • Don't rely on incognito mode. Your browser's private or incognito mode is handy for minimizing the data it stores locally on your own PC, but don't rely on it to do anything about your digital footprint. It has no effect on the data stored about you online.

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