Every time we delve into the digital world – be it surfing the web, using search engines, logging onto social media platforms, or posting status updates, we unknowingly craft a nuanced digital footprint. These are minuscule fragments of information that we scatter on the internet, providing advertisers, websites, and apps with a granular view of our preferences.
For instance, each digital destination we visit, it discreetly places a “cookie” on our browser to document that activity. Some of the most invasive of these cookies are identified as tracking cookies, designed to scrutinize our behavior across the expansive internet landscape, rather than just on a particular website.
Activities such as completing an online form, responding to an online quiz, commenting on a Pinterest board, or even making online purchases, all contribute to the complexity of our digital footprint. When aggregated, these seemingly insignificant actions can construct a comprehensive profile, offering a detailed chronicle of an individual’s digital history and respective preferences.
Digital Footprints – Active and passive
The activities previously mentioned are classified as active digital footprints. These encompass the instances where you consciously participate in an action, such as refreshing your social media profiles or completing online forms.
In contrast, a passive digital footprint refers to the nuanced data that websites and applications gather that’s not directly linked to any particular activity. This information could include details like your browser preference or the primary gadget you use. Some online platforms also keep a record of your IP address to establish a passive identity.
Furthermore, a passive digital footprint can provide websites and advertisers with valuable insights about your user profile, enabling them to tailor their content and offerings according to your preferences and behaviors.
How can you ascertain your digital footprint?
You might not realize this, but there is potentially a vast amount of information about you existing on the internet than you anticipate. The initial step you need to take is to perform a regular online search using your full name across various search engines.
A more targeted search such as “FirstName LastName@” enables you to discover if there are any email addresses connected with your name, of which you may be unaware. Likewise, try the search filter “FirstName LastName filetype: doc” to determine if your name is included in any Word document uploaded online. You can further extend this investigation by repeating the process for different file extensions like jpeg, pdf, and others.
HaveIBeenPwned stands as a widely used online tool to ascertain if your email addresses have ever been jeopardized in a data breach. Lastly, administer an image search using your first and last name to check for any potentially damaging or manipulated photos of you on the web.
Journey over to Google Ad Personalization to capture a snapshot of your digital persona. This reveals what Google perceives as your interests and preferences, allowing it to tailor ads to your tastes. Remember, you need to be logged in to access this data.
How do you safeguard your digital presence?
The initial stride towards regulating your digital footprint involves reducing the quantum of information accessible to others. Here are a few strategies to initiate this process:
Evaluate your privacy settings on social media
The public status of your Instagram and Facebook accounts paves the way for any individual with internet access to virtually stalk you and download your photos (and other information) at will. It is prudent to reassess your privacy settings to ensure that only your acquaintances can access personal elements such as status updates and check-ins. You can further safeguard your privacy by creating customized lists of individuals who can view specific posts.
Terminate idle accounts
If you’ve previously created a Telegram or TikTok account that is no longer in use, there’s no rationale for its continued existence on a cloud server. It is recommended to delete all dormant accounts permanently, thereby erasing any existing data that companies might hold about you from their servers perpetually.
Secure your traffic with a VPN
One method through which websites and apps monitor your activity is via passive digital footprints, thereby keeping track of elements like your IP address and your internet access points. A VPN can upend this process by diverting your traffic through an encrypted tunnel and replacing your actual IP address with the one from the VPN server.
Exercise caution regarding online disclosures
A tried and tested strategy for protecting your privacy is to exercise extreme caution about your online activities. It’s recommended to refrain from indiscriminately sharing personal information on the internet or habitually filling out forms or registering on random websites. The less information you disclose, the better. Bear in mind that the disclosed data could potentially be captured and retained for an extended period.
Update your devices regularly
Regularly updating your devices is not solely for fending off cybersecurity threats. It can also assist in minimizing tracking by third parties. If you’re operating on an older version, there’s a higher probability of your digital footprint expanding. Furthermore, older devices might be susceptible to intrusive malware and zero-day exploits designed to extract data.
Is it feasible to erase your digital trace?
Inhabitants living in certain geographies, including the European Union, are granted the privilege to issue “right to be forgotten” petitions to search engines such as Google, thereby requesting the exclusion of private information about them from search results. However, the acceptance or rejection of such requests hinges heavily on the context.
Even though this method can substantially restrict individuals from obtaining information about you via search, it doesn’t expunge the information from the respective sites and applications. Moreover, this request solely pertains to searches conducted within that particular region; individuals attempting to search for your information outside the European Union might still be able to scrutinize your digital trace.
To put it briefly, it may indeed be unattainable to fully erase your digital trace. This probability is also contingent on other elements, including the number of social media accounts you’ve established throughout the years and the regularity of your web browsing.
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