What is a digital footprint, and why is it important?

Social footprints, economic footprints, environmental footprints – all we seem to hear about today are the various paw marks we leave in our wake. But there’s another footprint we also need to be wary of, namely our digital footprint. While it may just sound like a digital replica of our feet it is far more serious than that. So what is a digital footprint, and why is it important?

What is a digital footprint?

A digital footprint is essentially the data we leave behind online. While there are some tools available that can help mitigate the amount of information passed on to third parties, you can be sure that some software , somewhere, is recording everything you do online and your activities whilst browsing. The intentions are not as sinister as that may sound, but it is something to be aware of when you’re online.

There are two types of digital footprint left behind: passive and active. A passive digital footprint is made up of information collected without the user being aware of it, such as websites that install cookies without your knowledge, or apps that use geolocation to track your location.

An active digital footprint features data knowingly provided by the user, which includes posting information on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter or filling out forms to receive updates and further details about latest offers.

What does a digital footprint reveal?

When analysed in more detail a digital footprint can reveal a lot about a particular person’s identity, location and personal interests, the brands they engage with and any future plans they may have in the future (such as booked holidays or events taking place at a later date).

Anyone who uses the internet has a digital footprint, whether a frequent or sporadic visitor. Of course, the information revealed can only be based on your activities online, so while the categories of information are wide and generic, the specifics depend on the websites you click into and what you do when there.

Although the prospect of having all this information floating around the internet can be concerning to some, there are an increasing number of ways to increase your privacy online.

Why is your digital footprint important?

Aside from building a profile about you and your lifestyle, a digital footprint plays a fundamental role in building a reputation or impression of who you are online, which can also translate into the ‘real’ you offline. The more aware of it you are, the more you can control what others – namely companies and other organisations – are able to find out about you digitally.

Your active digital footprint is the one you have most control over as it is created by the information you knowingly offer. From putting a photo on Instagram, to posting your opinion about a hot topic on Facebook, all this activity creates a digital version of you viewable by others.

It’s important to be aware of how this impression can influence other people’s judgements about who you ‘appear’ to be. Increasingly, employers check social media to dig a little deeper into the history of prospective or current staff. There have even been a number of reports of companies disciplining or firing employees based on online activity that is deemed to fall foul of their regulations.

The same can also be true of friends and relatives – especially those who you rarely see in real life. Our digital footprints can create both a positive and negative perspective on how others see us, so the more careful and considered you are about what you post, the more control you have over your digital footprint and image.

But your digital footprint isn’t just important to the individual. It is now one of the most highly sought after and valuable digital commodities of today, both economically – and perhaps even more worryingly – politically.

How is your digital footprint used by third parties?

There are a myriad of ways that your digital data is collected and used to promote and sell products while you remain unaware that your own information is repurposed in other ways.

All the interactions you have online – especially those associated with goods and services – can be refined to further target your interests and increase the amount of money you are willing to spend. Purchased or made an enquiry about a new pair of shoes recently? Don’t be surprised to see a lot more adverts or promotional content associated with the brand or competitors lingering in your browser.

But while selling products may seem harmless as we always have the final say over whether or not we make the purchase, our digital footprints can also be used in far more nefarious ways.

Take, for example, the fairly recent case of Cambridge Analytica, a now defunct political consultancy firm who collected huge swathes of personal information via Facebook’s Open Graph platform. This was then used to sway voters during the 2016 Presidential Election to help their client, Donald Trump, win the election.

Whistle-blowers eventually exposed the true nature of the manipulative adverts being targeted towards the millions of people whose information they had access to. In leaked documents Cambridge Analytica explained that the goal was to convince viewers that supporting candidates who prioritise national security was the right thing to do if they wanted a stronger and safer America.

Accusations were also made that Cambridge Analytica was involved in swaying people to vote for the leave campaign during the Brexit referendum, although after a 3-year investigation the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) concluded that this was not the case.

Equally, personal data is not only important to the commercial world and those working in the political sphere. It is just as valuable in digital black markets, where data is often stolen, purchased and sold. The information can be harvested and mined in a number of ways to create authentic looking methods of attack that are used to target specific groups, or to blackmail high-net worth individuals or corporate entities.

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