What Is a Digital Footprint?

digital footprint

It is nearly impossible to remain anonymous in today's connected society. There are many ways your digital footprint is magnified and spread, even without using a smartphone, such as:

  • Signing up for a Netflix account.
  • Getting a transponder for toll roads.
  • Using your debit card to ride public transit.

Your work history, property ownership, and tax records are usually discoverable online. Your face (now mapped by digital recognition technologies) will likely appear in group photos from school or teams. And things like passports and driver's licenses are widely disseminated by official sources. Each of these adds to your digital footprint, whether you want one or not.

What All Makes Up a Digital Footprint?

Just owning and using connected technology creates a digital footprint. Every computer keystroke, voice request made to your digital assistant, or location ping by your smartphone is a digital "crumb" left behind. These "crumbs" or data points comprise your digital footprint. This data is permanent information valuable to media, web developers, and those who want to sell things to you. You may wish to erase your digital presence, but it's nearly impossible.

Within a digital footprint are active and passive crumbs. Active data points are those that a person creates online, including:

  • Filling in and submitting online forms, including search engines
  • Sending emails
  • Interacting with digital accounts such as Zelle, Paypal, or your bank
  • Making online purchases
  • Posting on social media

Passive data points that add to one's digital footprint include:

  • Your IP, or Internet Protocol, address
  • Data from phones that are at the same location as yours
  • Your browsing history
  • Location data

Risks of a Digital Footprint?

There are many ways that anyone else using the internet can discover aspects of your digital footprint. Start by using search engines to discover the extent of your digital footprint. If your name has appeared in a newspaper article, on a list of high school or college graduates, if there are reviews of your business, or if you've left reviews for others' businesses, you'll see these results, which are an indication of your digital footprint. In addition, social media posts by you or another person who mentions you and is set to "public" can all be discovered. In addition, states and cities must post specific information about you on resident listings, lists of certified tradespersons, and arrests or criminal indictments.

International data brokers like Acxiom, Intelius, Epsilon, DataLogics, Experian, Spokeo, Whitepages, and others are likely to have a personal profile of you available for anyone to purchase. This information often includes your home address, age, profession, family members, and potentially your telephone number for sale. Some data brokers claim to have nearly 1,500 pieces of information on many individuals and say they have about 10 percent of the entire population on file.

These companies sell access to your digital footprint and, often, to your profile as well. This information is frequently used to target advertising, but others can also use it with unscrupulous intentions.

What Can Scammers Do with Your Online Data?

Scammers attempt to knit together pieces of your identity from your digital footprint. If they can find enough information, they may:

  • Target your phone account for takeover.
  • Break into your email and change other account passwords.
  • Impersonate you to apply for loans or to drain your bank account.
  • Send phishing emails to your employees to steal valuable business information.

In some countries, personal data laws protect personal data, but most of the United States is still a free-for-all except for stolen information. Europe recently instituted the GDPR standards that require businesses to keep personal information, such as data on purchases or the customer's profile, encrypted and separate from the customer's name, along with a menu of other "rights," including serious financial penalties for noncompliance with data breach rules. Japan, Australia, and South Africa have similar provisions. California was the first state in the U.S. to pass a similar law that covers its residents. Most of the United States does not have laws to protect residents' data.

Manager Your Digital Footprint?

It's important to manage your digital footprint before a data breach helps hackers take advantage of you. Data breaches usually release limited information about a person – not enough for a hacker to compile a complete profile. But because many other data points are available legally through data brokers, hackers may be able to purchase stolen information and combine it with a legally-acquired home address to create a fake profile and open accounts in your name.

To reduce the opportunity for your personal information to be stolen, you should remove access to the most sensitive information by:

  • Removing yourself from old accounts.
  • Delete credit card information that may be kept "on file" for easy shopping.
  • Change social media privacy settings to friends only.
  • Remove your telephone number from social media accounts.

In addition, strengthen access to your online presence:

  • Use solid and complicated passwords.
  • Use multi-factor authentication.
  • Do not share your email or telephone number with retailers for buyer's clubs.
  • Don't use passwords or security questions that people can guess.
  • Limit access to your cell phone number.

Why it Matters

In addition to being vulnerable to scams, a digital presence can come back to bite you if you slip up. In many cases, a person's digital footprint has been used to track them down for punishment and public shame after bad behavior. Many of those taking part in the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol were found by people tracing their digital footprints. In addition to cell phone location pings that placed them at or inside the Capitol during the riot, facial recognition technology was used, and social media accounts were mined to prove they participated. These people were tracked down, many arrested and tried for criminal behavior, and sentenced by federal authorities.

College applicants, prospective employees, and those running for public service have their digital footprints examined in other situations. Job and college admission offers have been rescinded when ill-advised social media posts were made public. Clearing one's digital footprint is recommended for financial security, identity theft prevention, or professional advancement.