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January 24, 2022

9 Steps to Reduce Your Digital Footprint

Posted by Rhiannon

Using the internet is like walking through a patch of mud. No matter where you go, you leave behind a footprint that others can see. While this can help you stay connected with a larger world, it also puts your personal information on display, which reduces your security and privacy online. When some people learn this, they want to cut ties with the internet altogether. However, that task is easier said than done. Living in a connected world often means it’s not possible to disconnect: we need the internet to reach out to potential employers, keep in touch with friends and family, find business addresses and phone numbers, and more. So instead of disconnecting entirely, you can reduce your digital footprint instead. Here’s what you need to know:

  • What is a digital footprint?
  • What’s so important about them?
  • Are they dangerous to have?
  • Can you delete them?
  • 9 steps to reduce your digital footprint

What is a Digital Footprint?

In Hansel and Gretel, two children lost in the forest use breadcrumbs to mark their trail. The digital world operates much the same way. Every time you use the internet, your activity leaves crumbs of information behind. A crumb may be something like a Google search, a social media post, or an online purchase. When combined, the crumbs create a whole; your digital footprint, which can be used to identify you online.

Every footprint is made up of two types of information: active and passive.

  • The active part of your footprint consists of information you deliberately leave behind on the internet. For example, participating in forums, subscribing to newsletters, and more all require deliberate input from a user. This input becomes ingrained into a digital footprint.
  • The passive part of a digital footprint is created when information about a user is collected without their knowledge, which happens all the time. Once you visit a website for the first time, that website acknowledges you as a user (they can identify you based on, go figure, your digital footprint). Every time you visit that website from then on, it collects more information about you, such as the pages you view, the links you click, the amount of time you spend on the site, and more. Much of this information is gathered through the use of cookies, which are bits of code stored on your device with the purpose of gathering data about you. Ironically, most websites ask you to accept cookies, which adds to your active footprint (though the data collection done by cookies remains passive).

What’s So Important About an Online Footprint?

Digital footprints are intimately identifying. In most cases, your digital footprint is tied to your real-world identity (including your name, birthday, address, and more). Because of this, it can be used to scrutinize your online activity, in a way that you may not face in the offline world. Simply put, digital footprints are a privacy nightmare. Here are other reasons why they matter so much:

  • They’re pretty much permanent. Once you create a digital footprint, it’s there forever.
  • If the information associated with your digital footprint becomes public, you’ll have little control over how it’s used by others, such as advertisers.
  • Your digital footprint is your online reputation. That online reputation can affect your offline reputation too. This can affect your relationship with family, friends, current employers, and prospective employers.
  • Your footprint can be hijacked by criminals to use to their advantage.

Are Digital Footprints Dangerous?

If you value your privacy, a digital footprint is your enemy. They contain an entire library of information about you but are difficult to control or keep private. For example, a prospective employer can simply Google your name and most search engines will pull up your social media pages, articles written about you (Florida Man, beware), photos you were tagged in by others, and more. If your footprint isn’t squeaky clean, it may cost you a job.

Meanwhile, advertisers who gain access to your footprint through cookies can use it to track your shopping habits and send you tailored ads across platforms and websites. 

And cybercriminals may use the information found in your footprint to target you with phishing attempts or even steal your identity. 

Can You Delete Your Footprint?

Perhaps the biggest risk associated with digital footprints is the fact that, once created, it’s darn near impossible to delete. The information that goes into your footprint is made up of millions, if not billions, of digital actions. You may be able to remove or hide some of those actions, like old Facebook likes and comments. But, unfortunately, some actions are owned by others; if you want to remove an online purchase from your digital footprint, you’d have to convince the company you transacted with to wipe the transaction…and then you’d have to find a way to erase the history of your conversation with that company.

Although you cannot delete it you may be able to reduce your digital footprint.

9 Steps to Reduce Your Digital Footprint

There’s a common misconception that the only people who want to reduce their digital footprint are those who have something to hide. In truth, you should consider reducing your footprint if you value your privacy or if you, rightly, believe that your data should be yours and yours alone. These 9 steps can help you out:

  • Delete or deactivate old accounts
  • Remove yourself from data collection sites
  • Don’t post personal information online
  • Get rid of old email accounts
  • Check your privacy settings
  • Unsubscribe from mailing lists
  • Use stealth mode
  • Think before posting
  • Use a VPN

Delete or Deactivate Old Accounts

When you sign up for an account online, most ask for your name, email address, and sometimes a profile picture. This helps confirm that you’re a real person and not a robot, but it also means your information is out there. When you’re done with an account, delete it to prevent excess data about you remaining online. It’s also a good idea to write out a list of old accounts you may once have had (MSN, Tumblr, etc.) so you can go back and delete those too.

Remove Yourself From Data Collection Sites

Entire companies exist with the sole purpose of crawling the web to collect your data. Everything you do online can be found by these companies, who then sell that data to any interested party, like advertising businesses. Not only does this mean you can be bombarded with spam and ads you don’t want to see, but it also means your privacy is being invaded. One way to stop this from happening is to search for your name on data collection sites and go through the opt-out process on them to have your name removed. Third party services will also do this job for you, because it can be slow and tedious, but you may need to pay them for their work. Once you get your name removed, keep checking back periodically to make sure you haven’t been added back to lists.

Don’t Post Personal Information Online

Many websites ask you to fill out optional forms with your information. This is especially true of social media accounts, like Facebook and LinkedIn. However, the more information you put online, the more you put your own privacy at risk. When it’s optional, fill out as little information as you can. Does Facebook really need to know your birthday?

Get Rid of Old Email Accounts

Many people have used multiple email accounts at one point in their lives or another. From HotMail to Gmail, email has evolved a lot over the years and people abandon accounts to create new ones. Once an account is abandoned, it is a good idea to delete it permanently rather than just let it sit idle. Emails house personal details about our lives, as well as confidential information in old messages. When an account is left alone, it becomes harder to notice if they’ve been breached as well. Rather than let them pose a risk to you, eliminate them entirely.

Check Your Privacy Settings

This step is especially important on social networks, where your goal is to connect with people. Sometimes you just want to stay in touch with loved ones but if your privacy settings are wrong, all of your information may be visible to the public. Double check all of your accounts to make sure only the people you want to see your information are the ones seeing it!

Unsubscribe From Mailing Lists

Sometimes we sign up for dozens, if not hundreds of mailing lists (not always on purpose). But most people don’t read all of the newsletters that clutter their inboxes. To reduce your digital footprint and the number of third parties with access to your information, start unsubscribing from the extra lists you don’t really need.

Use Stealth Mode

Most browsers have a way to set your browsing to private. This method of searching online can help prevent websites from tracking you and keep your actions more private. This can help reduce your digital footprint, but keep in mind it doesn’t make everything you do invisible. You can also use a VPN to hide your activity.

Think Before Posting

One of the easiest ways to keep yourself safe online and reduce your digital footprint is to think before you post something. This includes status updates, comments, and more. Don’t ever share personal details you don’t want the world to see, and don’t ever post something you don’t want out in the world forever.

Use a VPN

A VPN or “virtual private network” is an extra layer of security that protects you and your privacy. It reduces the risk of websites tracking your actions and collecting your data. There are several VPNs on the market.

Some people compare digital footprints to prints in the sand. Everywhere you go, you leave one behind. However, footprints in the sand tend to wash away. Meanwhile, a digital footprint is more like a fossil; our online presences will last longer than we will. If you don’t want the history of your life kept in the digital records forever, use our tips to keep your footprint to a minimum and stay safe online in general.

Posted by Rhiannon

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