What is a Digital Footprint?
Your digital footprint is all the “things” you leave behind as you spend time on the Internet. The list might include records from your email, site cookies (more on that later), videos, images, social-media comments, even calls made via Skype. If you’ve used these and other methods to communicate or search, you have an online history. As is the case in the physical world, when you leave footprints your path can be tracked by someone with the correct knowledge and skills.
It’s similar to leaving a footprint when you walk across sand or loose dirt. People who come behind you, or want to find you, can follow you easily and, in the case of a digital footprint, use the information left behind to try to sell you something, or even cause harm.
A digital footprint could also be a clue to solving online crimes and discovering who is taking inappropriate action in the virtual world. You might be engaged in perfectly legal and acceptable online activity and still leave traces of your presence. It’s nearly impossible to visit sites without leaving some footprint, but it’s possible to reduce the “evidence” in many cases, and to eliminate it completely in some situations.
This marketing and advertising method is used to send you more information about products or to bring you back to a specific site. Cookies might be used even when you browse or read about a product or service on a mobile phone or tablet. You also leave a traceable record when you comment on social media. In many situations, even your private comments and messages can leave enough evidence behind to allow someone to “follow” you.
Clearing Your History
This can be an issue when it comes to leaving a digital footprint. If teens and young adults shared inappropriate photos online, they can generally be shared quite easily with others. If you, or your children, think there’s no record of what is placed on the Internet, consider that in many cases the photos and text online cannot be erased or removed.
Anyone who has visited a website or who has enjoyed online shopping will be familiar with the term “cookies.” Cookies are stored on your computer system by the technology of the website, so the seller or site owner can track your movement (find their way back to you).
Living with Footprints
Footprints may be left intentionally or unintentionally. There are ways to make your online presence more difficult to track, though this is a subject broad enough for another article, another time. You can get a good start by using the tools provided in your browser and operating software. Take the simple step of clearing your history, including cookies, on a regular basis.
As mentioned, it may be impossible to get rid of all digital footprint traces. However, there are some steps you can take to reduce the trail you leave behind. Start by learning as much as possible about default privacy settings and make changes to these in your social-media accounts. It may be necessary to follow this on a regular basis, monthly if possible, because site administrators and developers may change policies and alter settings that could affect your online life.
For those who wish to dig deeper into the technology behind the digital footprint, consider this evidence as either passive or active. A passive footprint keeps track of the user’s IP address, including information about the time and location. Administrators, and others, may be able to view this information later but probably won’t know who made the visit or took the online action.
What you leave behind can be an active footprint. Suppose a user logs onto a site, makes a change or posts something. A registered name will usually be connected to the activity. Logs might be kept that can be viewed and analyzed offline. In some cases, sensitive information, such as passwords, may be on the log. Start by clearing your browsing history.
You and your family members spend a lot of time online. The amount of time devoted to Internet activity will probably increase as time goes on. If you understand digital footprints you’ll stay safer online, as will the younger people in your household.