What is a “Digital footprint”?
Your digital footprint is a record of everything you do online, like the websites you visit and what you post on social media. It’s essential to be cautious because companies, advertisers, and even government officials who engage in open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathering can access this information. While much of this data is used harmlessly for online maps, NGO reports, and research databases, it can also be used by hackers to prepare a social engineering attack, gain competitive intelligence, or engage in a phishing campaign.
Examples of a digital footprint
Many pieces of information can be considered part of your digital footprint as it encompasses everything you do online. Here are some of the most prevalent examples of a digital footprint:
- Social media posts and comments on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
- Online searches made through search engines like Google, Bing or DuckDuckGo.
- Online purchases, including purchased items and payment methods used.
- Emails, instant messages, and chat logs stored online.
- Location data, such as GPS coordinates and Wi-Fi access points.
- Visits to websites while using the internet.
Why is your digital footprint important?
A digital footprint is important because it can be a lasting record of your online activities, including your interests, personal views, and preferences. It can be used to make employment, housing, and credit lending decisions and can also be a pig online privacy concern.
Examples of how a digital footprint can pose privacy and security concerns include:
- Identity theft. Personal information such as full name, date of birth, address, and Social Security number can be used to steal your identity (learn how to check if your SSN is being used).
- Discrimination. Information such as your religion, political beliefs, or health conditions could be used to discriminate against you in areas such as employment or housing.
- Cyberstalking or cyberbullying. Your digital footprint can be used to track your online activities and physical location, potentially putting you at risk of stalking and physical harm.
- Data breaches. Personal information stored online can be vulnerable to data breaches, where hackers gain access to sensitive information.
- Reputation damage. Posts or comments made on social media can be taken out of context or used to damage your reputation.
- Marketing and advertising. Companies can use your digital footprint to target you with personalized ads, which may be invasive or even offensive.
How does a digital footprint get created?
A digital footprint is created each time you use the internet. This includes posting on social media, sending emails and messages, using search engines like Google or Bing, making online purchases, using location-based services, and sharing your personal information online.
How to check your digital footprint?
Here are a few steps to check your digital footprint:
- Google yourself: Type your name into a search engine and see what comes up. This can give you an idea of the information that is readily available about you online.
- Check your social media profiles: Review your privacy settings on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to see what information is visible to the public.
- Search for your email addresses: Type in the email addresses you use frequently to see what information or accounts are associated with them.
- Search for your username: If you use the same username across different platforms, you can search for it to see what information is associated with it.
- Use privacy tools: There are tools available online, such as online privacy checkers, that can help you see what information is publicly available about you.
It’s important to regularly check your digital footprint to ensure that your personal information is secure and that you have control over what is visible to others.
Why is a digital footprint such a big deal?
Think of a literal footprint, like the kind you might leave on soft earth. Straight away, it tells whoever comes across it that you were there, roughly when you were there, and whether you were alone. It gives a good indication of your height and even your weight. It shows if you were running, walking, or limping.
Looking at the tread pattern, it’s easy to see any problems or idiosyncrasies in your gait. The tread might also contain particles or fibers that point to where you’ve been and possibly even what you do for a living. The list goes on, and all from a simple footprint. This is nothing compared to your digital footprint.
How to delete a digital footprint
Think of the tips below as a list of dos and don’ts that will help you delete as much of your digital footprint as possible while also reducing the footprint you’re leaving behind you right now. Your digital footprint is constantly growing and changing in response to your online activities.
Rein in data brokers
Let’s start with the shortcut. It can’t replace all the steps below, but if you want maximum impact for minimal effort, this is for you. Data brokers specialize in meticulously recording and curating your digital footprint to sell it directly to the public or other companies that know how to profit from your data. Lots of available data in the hands of data brokers increases the risk of open-source intelligence (OSINT) gathering, which puts you and your company at particular risk from a targeted attack. If private data aggregators and brokers can find, sell, and create personal profiles from your most sensitive information easily, taking your data off the market should be just as easy!
Thanks to data privacy laws in states like California, Virginia, and Colorado, data brokers generally have to remove your personal info when asked. The catch is that to have your information removed from every data broker that has it would take you an estimated 304 hours. There’s a better way.
Incogni works on your behalf, reaching out to dozens of these companies at a time, submitting opt-out requests, and following up with rejection appeals if needed. Incogni is a paid service, but the amount of time it saves you is worth it to most people. Protecting your personal information doesn’t have to be a pain.
So many retail and even food places will try to get you to sign up for an online account or install an app. “Scam” is a strong word, but it’s safe to say that these companies get much more out of you using their apps than you do. Browser extensions are just as bad. They’re mostly focused on harvesting your personal information.
Lock down your location settings
Your mobile devices have several ways of determining and tracking your location. You probably have all kinds of apps installed, with many of them clamoring for your location data. Cut them off at the source by locking down your location settings. Revert all location permissions and add them back only where necessary.
Note: turning off your location services will prevent you iphone from notifying you if an AirTag is tracking you.
Social media platforms can certainly spy on you even if you don’t use them (like Facebook’s infamous tracking pixel). But that’s a drop in the ocean compared to what users willingly share on their social media profiles and in their various social media posts. If online privacy is your priority, ditch mainstream social media.
If you’re not ready to do this just yet, then at least modify your account settings to take control over what you share online. Make your social media profiles accessible only to your actual family and friends. Go back over your old posts and delete whatever you can. Think twice before sharing sensitive information.
Want to learn how to make social media profiles more private? Check out these resources:
- How to make Facebook private
- How to make Twitter private
- How to make Pinterest private
- How to make Venmo private
- How to make TikTok private
- How to make Instagram private
- How to make Linkedin private
Do what you can offline
Your digital footprint comes out of your online activities, so a logical way to reduce that footprint is to cut back on those activities. If you can complete a task without creating an online account, do so. Share online only what you absolutely need to share. Pay cash wherever possible and keep a low digital profile.
Stop reusing passwords
There’s really no excuse for reusing passwords or using weak passwords. If one of your old accounts gets hacked (or, more likely, the company responsible for that account allows itself to get breached) and you’ve been using the same password elsewhere, then all those accounts are ripe for the picking too.
This is called credential stuffing and is the first thing many hackers will do after coming across a list of leaked or stolen passwords. Use a password manager to create strong, unique passwords for each new online account. Password managers like NordPass and Bitwarden are trusted and effective.
Cookies aren’t all bad, but many are. Protect your online privacy by blocking cookies wherever you can. Privacy-respecting browsers like Firefox do this by default and give you fine-grained control over what to let through to stop websites from breaking. This way you allow an affected site to load without opening the cookie floodgates.
Cross-site tracking cookies are especially egregious. Firefox blocks these by default. Make sure your browser does too if you don’t use Firefox. These cookies in particular can really siphon off shocking amounts of information on your browsing habits.
Use ad blockers everywhere
Blocking ads improves your overall online experience, shortens load times, and saves on bandwidth and data usage. Ad blockers do a lot more than that, though. They also improve both your online privacy and security by thwarting tracking and other scripts. Some ad blockers are worse than no ad blocker at all, though.
Keep in mind that many ad-blocking browser extensions contain spyware or other kinds of malware. Stick to well-known and trusted extensions like Raymond Hill’s uBlock Origin and be on the lookout for malicious lookalikes. Double-check the developer’s details to make sure you’re downloading the real deal.
Choose privacy-respecting software and services
Speaking of web browsers, stay away from the likes of Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, and Apple’s Safari—these are all data-harvesting machines. Stick to privacy-respecting software to protect your online privacy. Try Mozilla Firefox for your browser and look into alternatives to any other Big Tech products you use.
Know when to use a VPN
A VPN (virtual private network) is often pushed as a silver bullet that solves all possible privacy and security concerns. That’s not quite the case, but a VPN can be invaluable under certain circumstances. Always use a trusted VPN like Surfshark when connecting to public networks like hotel or airport WiFi.
A VPN is also useful when dealing with an untrustworthy online service or website. Some companies are so risky to interact with that masking both your email and IP address is a must if you value your privacy. Of course, it’s also a great way to bypass censorship efforts and regional restrictions.
Use antivirus software
Having your computer or other device infected with malware is a great way to have catastrophic amounts of personal data flow out into the world. Good, trusted antivirus software is especially important on Windows and macOS devices. Bad antivirus software can do more harm than good, so choose carefully.
Remove yourself from Google Search results
You don’t have online privacy if your personal information shows up in Google Search results. Although not recommended for privacy reasons, Google searches are most people’s first port of call when looking for background information on someone. We prepared a step-by-step guide for removing yourself from Google Search.
Don’t leave things logged in
Leaving online services and apps logged in raises the chances of your personal data finding its way into the wrong hands. Just think, your online banking platform logs you out automatically after a short period of inactivity. Why? Because it’s too risky to leave it logged in. The same logic applies to other services.
Delete your history from all the platforms
Think of all the major service providers that you’ve been feeding with your data over the years. Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and so on. Each of them has a huge amount of your personal info on its servers. Rather than leaving a permanent record of all your online activities, regularly delete your history.
Nuke your unused accounts
Similarly, having old accounts sitting around unused only increases your attack surface. This is true of all unused accounts, but is particularly important when it comes to email accounts. You might have password reset emails still going to some of your old email accounts, for example. Delete unused accounts to protect your data.
Delete the internet’s backups
You can’t really delete other people’s and companies’ backups, but there is the Wayback Machine. The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of websites that are, for one reason or another, no longer available. You can contact the webmaster at email@example.com to ask to have information removed.
Updated on: February 9, 2023
How do I know if I have a digital footprint?
You definitely have a digital footprint, unless you’re reading this off a printout that was hand-delivered to your Unabomber-styled shack in the woods. Everyone who regularly makes use of the internet has a footprint. Search for your contact details or home address—the search results are part of your footprint.
Can you completely erase your digital footprint?
No, it’s practically impossible to completely delete your digital footprint. Digital privacy isn’t about finding ways to disappear completely, but rather taking control over your personal information and reducing your footprint to a bare minimum. Everyone will have their own balance between privacy and convenience.
What digital footprint am I leaving?
The footprint you leave depends on what you do and share online. Your browsing habits are likely contributing a lot to your footprint, as are your shopping habits. Your demographic information, preferences, beliefs, associations, employment details, income, and more can be part of that footprint.
How do I remove myself from internet searches?
Data brokers, people search sites in particular, are probably responsible for most of what shows up in your internet searches. A paid personal information removal service like Incogni will help you deal with these. For everything else, you’ll need to contact individual webmasters and search engines.
Can anyone see my digital footprint?
Anyone can see parts of your digital footprint, but there are parts of your footprint that only some people, companies, or governments can see. Generally, there’s no one person or entity that can see all of your footprint. Digital privacy goes far beyond just getting your personal info off of search results.
What can a digital footprint reveal?
There’s virtually no limit to what a digital footprint can reveal. Your personal info, browsing habits, online activities, and online identity are all fair game. Your medical information, criminal history, education and employment details, and sexual orientation can also end up in your footprint.
Who can see my digital footprint?
Parts of your digital footprint can be seen by everyone and anyone, others are visible only to first and third party services or shadowy data brokers. Think of your footprint as something like your online identity, only that it includes your whole identity, including all those parts you’re not aware of yourself or you’d prefer to hide.