What is digital footprint?

In simple words “whenever you go online you leave behind some information about yourself like sending an email to someone, posting a picture on your social networks, commenting on a post or  a news story, video calls, apps that you use, or even a simple google search. So, it is extremely important that you know what kind of trail you are leaving, and what can be the possible effects it can bring in your life.  Your digital footprint is all that you leave behind as you use the Internet. It is actually a part of your online history and can potentially be seen by other people, or tracked in a database by service providers. For example, the negative review you gave for a service team that could not fix your problem is available for anyone to read, forever. A picture of yours sent to your friend will be there in some server and can be used by anyone. All of these digital activities can create a much larger picture of who you are and where you have been, what you have done and how you respond to certain situations. Always remember ‘what is there in Internet stays in Internet.’ There are two kinds of digital footprint: 'passive' and 'active'.

Passive digital footprint

Passive digital footprint is collected without our knowledge and is used to target you through advertisements, build customer profiles and more. This includes information like individual browsing data, IP addresses, purchasing habits and many more. This data is not easily available by simple search techniques so it will not be an issue in day-to-day life, unless you are concerned with private companies like Google and Facebook tracking your internet activity and thereby modeling your behavior pattern, your preferences and choices. There are a number of ways to minimize this - by using proxies and VPNs, or using anonymsing technologies such as Tor.

Active digital footprint

Active digital footprint is the publicly-traceable information that you share online, like social media profile information, updates, posts, photos and videos shared.

How do we leave digital footprint

This can happen in many ways:

  • Through Websites And Online Shopping
  • Social media
  • Mobile phone, tablets and laptops

There are three main kinds of entities who are working together to track users data and create composite profiles. They are the Advertisers, Publishers, and Aggregators.

The advertisers are companies that have products or services to sell and therefore they market their products. The publishers are companies that publish advertisements online. They pair up advertisements with web page content, games etc. It can also be any on-line magazine, search engines, blog publishing platforms or website. Data aggregators collect anonymous data from their partners and use it to target ads.

Let’s look at an example: Google’s News is a news aggregation site, providing pointers to the top news stories from thousands of news sources available. If you have no relationship with Google and you simply click and open the web page, you will see the top stories, customized for your current location. So how does Google know your location and customize the news? For this, Google tracks your location, based on your IP address and GPS. The news stories on your browser are optimized according to your location.

When you browse a website, the site places a tracking cookie in your web browser. The browser will store that cookie on your device. The browser’s job is to send that cookie back to the web site, each and every time you return to it or ask for another page. Each of the web sites that you browse operates independently and send tracking cookies to your browser. The browser will only send back the URL of the content that you looked for and the cookie to the web site that set them. And if any of those web pages have advertisements from third parties on them, the third parties will also send their own tracking cookies. The websites do not really have any information about who you are or your profile since you did not authenticate to any of these websites, but they can still guess your age, sex, income and other details from your reading and browsing habits. This is possible because of the digital footprint that you have already left in the internet.

Why to manage digital foot print

Digital footprints should be a significant privacy concern for Internet users, because they can be used to track user actions and are a strong basis for “profiling” by online service providers and others. The digital record that you leave behind is capable of being misused by social media service providers. Service providers and other third parties exchange data about customer profiles and online transaction statistics. Many a time third party vendors may use the data without service provider’s knowledge.

Every time an individual uses Internet, the digital footprint that they leave behind is small, but when linked with previous data, it is possible to construct a complete profile about an individual. This data is mainly the collected data from web sites you have visited, the products you have bought or searched for, your address, and any other information you have given to any web site like age, sex, health, marital status, employment, financial information etc.., the list is as long as everything you have ever shared on the Internet.

The need to manage foot print is for:

  • Protecting your reputation
  • Maintaining your ability to decide where and how your personal information is shared.
  • Preventing financial loss
  • Preserving your freedom to make choices and preferences.

How to carefully manage a positive digital footprint

  • Use only your first name. If possible, use your nick names. Try to avoid abundance of personal information in social media profiles when you create an account. But make sure you provide only true and relevant information.
  • Keep your passwords and personal details private.
  • Keep evidence if you are being bullied and do not bully back; it is always better to seek help from parents/ guardians.
  • Make sure the information you shared in social media is true.
  • Make sure you have a check on access rights of your data by any new website or Application.
  • Think about who will read the information you have shared online. Can anyone misunderstand what you have shared?
  • Have a time limit on the time spend on social media.
  • Try to know about the current cyber crime issues and also develop good digital hygiene habits.
  • Find and use privacy enhancing tools.
  • Very often, the default settings for browsers, devices and apps are set to disclose your personal data, rather than secure. It is worth taking the time to investigate those settings and make sure you are comfortable with them, just like it is worth checking whether you latched the windows before you left the house.
  • Think before you accept ‘permission to send push notifications and access location data’, by an application.
  • Your camera and smart-phone usually record the time and location in each photo you take, and when you share those photos, you may be publishing that data unless you specifically block it.

It is always easy to point at the negative aspects, but it has to be noted that the absence of a digital footprint have a negative impact as well. It also important to ensure that you actually have an online presence that can support you to build a future that you wish. With respect to students, he/she needs to "cultivate and manage their digital identity and reputation and be aware of the permanence of their actions in a digital world". Now since most of our lives are intertwined with digital technology, the best thing we can do is to be aware and educated.

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