Digital footprints

07 Sep 2018

Your digital footprint is everything in the digital world that is about you.

Every day, whether or not you want to, you are leaving behind a trail of data that puts together a picture of who you are online, what you are doing, where you are going, and why you are doing these things. This picture is likely more public than you think. It lets companies better tailor content to your likes and dislikes; it helps employers check your backgrounds before hiring you; it allows advertisers to track your proclivities for purchases; and it allows your potential dates to find out a lot about you before even meeting.

These consequences of leaving digital footprints may not trouble you, if you think ‘you have nothing to hide’. However, don’t confuse privacy with secrecy – you might have nothing to hide, but you would still hesitate before handing over your phone for someone to read your chats or view your photos.

Digital footprints make it easier to uncover these private details. Even if you trust governments and security agencies with this information, and possibly also Google and Facebook, criminals also use information that reveal parts of someone’s personal life to steal from them, blackmail them, or even steal their identity. Although it is not possible to have zero digital footprints, it is possible for you to reduce the number of digital breadcrumbs you leave while traversing online spaces.

What are examples of digital footprints?

  • Your search history
  • Text messages, including deleted messages
  • Photos and videos, including deleted ones
  • Tagged photos, even those you never wanted online
  • Likes/loves on sites like Facebook and Instagram
  • Browsing history, even when you were on ‘Incognito’ mode

Why does my digital footprint matter?

  • Once information is online, it can be difficult (or impossible) to remove
  • Digital footprints determine someone’s digital reputation, which is now as important as their offline reputation
  • Information can easily land in the wrong hands, becoming dangerous
  • Words and photos can be easily misinterpreted and altered, causing unintentional insult
  • Content intended for a private group can easily spread to a broader circle, hurting relationships and friendships
  • Most employers check their potential employees’ digital footprints before hiring them

What can I do to leave better digital footprints?

  • Stop and ask yourself these questions before you post, forward, or reply to something: what would someone who doesn’t know me think of me if they saw this? Would I want someone else to post this about me? If this was on a signboard for everyone (my partner, parents, friends) to see, would I be okay with it? If the answer to any of these questions is no, maybe you should think twice about posting it
  • Remember to treat others like how you would like to be treated
  • Set your settings on social media sites to ‘Private’, and check and update this regularly
  • Turn off geo-tagging or location settings on your phone and social media
  • Check the content you are being tagged in, and remove those that are offensive or inappropriate
  • If you have posted content you regret, remove it immediately
  • If you find that you are posting things that are hurtful to yourself or others, it might be good to take a break from social media for a while

To leave less digital footprints, use encrypted, privacy-friendly app alternatives such as Signal, Telegram, and Wire. Learn more about the different apps available here.