In 2023, there’s is lots of data about you floating around on the internet. Some of it may have been leaked in data breaches, and you’ve probably given it out voluntarily via social media profiles and other accounts you’ve made with different organizations and websites.
There are a number of steps you can take to improve, minimize and erase your digital footprint, including using a secure VPN, deleting old accounts you hold with services you no longer use, and keeping a close eye on what you, your friends, and your relatives are posting about you on social media sites.
Even if you take these precautions, however, data brokers will still have a lot of your personal information stored in their systems. Luckily, you can remove this from the web with tools such as Incogni, which will contact data brokers that hold your information and demand that they remove it from their systems. In this guide, we cover:
What Is a Digital Footprint?
Your digital footprint consists of all the information relating to you that exists on the internet. In a nutshell, it’s the trail of activity you leave when you sign up for services, visit websites, purchase an item, or publish social media posts.
The data that makes up a “Digital footprint” is sometimes called your “digital shadow” or “digital fingerprint”.
The vast majority of people now have some sort of digital footprint. 5.18 billion people are considered “internet users” in 2023, which is around 64% of the world’s total population, and they're all going to have left digital footprints of varying sizes.
What Data Makes Up a Digital Footprint?
There are two main types of digital footprint: your “active” and “passive” digital footprint.
Your active digital footprint is made up of the information you deliberately leave on the internet. This includes all the information you’ve posted on social media websites you’ve signed up to with your personal email address, forms you’ve filled in, competitions you’ve entered, and more.
Your passive digital footprint, on the other hand, is made up of information collected by websites you visit – as well as other online spaces – that you might not necessarily realize is being collected.
A good example of this is your IP address. Websites need to know your IP address so they can communicate information to your device, but this process also reveals your rough location to the site in the process (unless you're using a VPN).
Aspects of your digital footprint:
There's a huge range of data that makes up the average digital footprint. Typically, a digital footprint includes:
- Purchases you’ve made on ecommerce sites
- Apps you’ve downloaded from app stores
- Stocks and shares you’ve bought
- Biometric data
- Subscriptions to streaming services and publications
- Your social media profile information
- Your social media posts likes and shares
- A CV you’ve uploaded to a job site
- Emails you’ve sent to public & private entities
- Your IP address & other log data
- Your browsing history and cookies
- Medical records and health data
- Email addresses you’ve used to make accounts
Could My Digital Footprint Put Me at Risk?
There are various ways your digital footprint can cause you difficulties in your life. For one, employers usually review prospective employees’ social media profiles before they hire them – if you’ve been posting things they find distasteful or offensive, it could severely harm your chances of getting your dream role and your overall reputation.
In fact, around 80% of employers use social media content to determine whether a candidate is suitable for a role – so it's important to be aware of what impression your past self has left online.
If you're posting about guns, drugs, violence or some sort of criminal activity, it could contribute to a “negative digital footprint” which impacts your career prospects.
Aspects of your digital footprint – if publicly accessible – could also lead to you being targeted by hackers in various types of phishing scams. They may, for instance, target you in a phishing campaign if they can access your email address or phone number online. What's more, if enough information about you is publicly accessible, you'll be an easier target for identity fraud than someone with a smaller digital footprint.
Businesses and marketing agencies sometimes buy information relating to consumers from the likes of data brokers, so your digital footprint could lead to you being harangued by businesses trying to sell you their products and/or services.
Insurance companies also buy this kind of information in order to build up a picture of an individual before they provide them with a quote or premium.
Similarly, they may also target you with advertisements based on information from your passive digital footprint, if they can get their hands on your behavioral information.
How to Minimize Your Digital Footprint
You can take preventative measures to ensure you’re not handing out personal data and information whenever you’re on the internet. This is sometimes called an “audit” of one's digital footprint.
These include avoiding unsafe websites, which are less likely to follow rules around what they can and can't legally do with your log data and cookies, and who they can sell it to. It's also wise to regularly review the apps that you keep on your phone, which are another hotspot for data mining.
You should delete old accounts you hold with services you don't use. If you never plan to use one again, it’s just personal data sitting out there in cyberspace, ready to be used by someone else.
If personal information (such as your birthday, physical address, phone number, or family members' names) is included within your social media profile and your privacy settings aren't configured properly, you're leaving yourself exposed. Making your social media profiles private can alleviate this.
On a related note, ensuring you’re not posting too much information about yourself on the social media profiles you use is recommended. We'd also advise refraining from logging in with social media profiles on other sites that have this as a login option, because they'll probably share your data during this process.
One piece of information that websites and other entities collect on users is Internet Protocol (IP addresses). However, using a secure VPN will encrypt your IP address and hide it from the website you visit – and make it a lot harder for all kinds of parties to track you.
You can also use a privacy-conscious web browser like Brave to minimize the efficacy of tracking tools and technology used by the like of Google, as well as most websites.
How Do I Remove My Digital Footprint?
Even though it might not feel like it, decreased level of privacy we experience is one of the key ways technology impacts our lives in the 21st century – so knowing how to remove your digital footprint is important. One way to remove your digital footprint is to take on the data brokers that hold your personal information online and sell it to business and marketing entities for financial gain.
This can include your phone number, email address, and physical house address, as well as other personal information. You can do this manually by directly contacting each data broker (hundreds exist), or seek help from a data broker removal service like Incogni.
Incogni will send out removal requests and deal with ensuing conversations with the data brokers – leaving you to sit back and watch your information be removed from their systems. Incogni takes just minutes to set up and is 50% off at the moment, for just $6.49 per month – it's the simplest and most straightforward service of this kind that we're aware of.
There are other ways you can remove your information from Google and reduce your physical footprint. Most social media sites in 2023 will let you make your accounts private, and also remove them from search engine results pages.
Recent changes to Google’s removal request process mean you can now request that personal information such as your phone number or physical address is removed from Google.
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