Get to know what a “Digital Footprint” is, how it’s created, and what consequences it has on our lives.

What is "Digital Footprint"?

The Digital Footprint or Online Reputation can be defined as an individual’s unique, traceable behavior in the online environment, including the content that is posted by the individual and even by others of the individual.

  • It is in simple terms, anything you leave behind while using the Internet. 
  • Digital footprint can also be referred to as a digital dossier, or digital shadow, as your shadow constantly follows you, or even a digital tattoo, as it permanently attaches to you, and is never erased, (or at least never easily erased without leaving a scar!).
  • By the same coin, once information makes its way online it can be difficult to remove and can be easily and quickly shared around.
  • More importantly, you must assume that your digital footprint is relatively permanent and can potentially be seen by other people, or tracked in a database.
  • Even when your accounts are private, the data traces are still existing and the user has very little control of how they will be used.

Types of Footprint:

In general, there are two general types of data traces that shape our digital footprints: active and passive.

Active data traces are intentionally left by the user for example by commenting, liking, and posting on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Passive data traces are unintentional; they are either left by other users, for example when a friend posts a picture of you, or interacts with you online, or through activities in which the user sometimes unknowingly puts out data, such as through online shopping, visiting websites, and online searches.

Additionally, data may be collected through cookies, which are files created after you first visit a website, and are preserved on your computer to track your activity when you revisit the same website.

How do we Leave Digital Footprints?

There are numerous ways in which digital footprints are left; most commonly, today digital footprints are left through:

  1. Online Shopping, Searches, and Visiting websites
    • Almost immediately after a user shops for a product online, advertisements for similar products start to show up on other websites that the user visits. This is proof that cookies are saved as traces of online activity.
  2. Online Social Networking
    • Any engagement on social networking platforms is tracked by the platform, including posting, sharing, liking, commenting, retweeting, etc.
  3. Any other online activity on digital devices including computers, tablets, smartphones, etc
    • Some users tend to use multiple devices to access the same websites or platforms. Websites tend to track these user habits to create a detailed user portfolio.

Why is it important to manage your Digital Footprint?

  • In the old days, before the creation of the internet, personal lives and details were shared only on phone calls, “secret diaries”, letters, and such.
  •  It was far less risky to share personal details, and the risks were less consequential.
  • Today, any information shared online is shared to a global audience.
  • There is no doubt that the web is tracking personal online activity every time it is used (even when using incognito mode), so it is important to understand what is left behind when visiting a website.
  • Tagged photos, blog posts and online social interactions shape how individuals are perceived by others online and offline, both now and in the future.
  • Images and words can be misinterpreted and altered as they are passed around. 
  • Content intended for a small group of friends can cause issues when shared with others outside the group. 
  • A poor digital reputation can affect friendships, relationships and even education and job prospects.
  • Indeed, today’s employers look up the digital footprint of a prospective employee, as it may carry even more weight than a CV!
  • Therefore, it is essential to protect one’s digitall footprint and be aware of what portrait is being painted of oneself online.

In today’s digital age, it’s impossible to achieve zero digital footprint. Rather, what are ways in which we can protect our digital footprints and ensure that they are boosted with positive content that will help build a reputable image for future work and educational opportunities?

  • It is completely normal that younger people are both heavy Internet users and more risk-prone; it is their natural mechanism for learning and discovering the world.
  • Children cannot be protected completely, but we can gently guide them on how to build a positive digital footprint.
  • The digital world is here to stay, so it is quite impractical to depend on using scare-tactics and trying to eliminate children’s access to the digital world.
  • In general, there is a great need to raise both adults’ and children’s level of awareness on what a digital footprint is, why it’s important to protect and shape digital footprints, and ensure that they are accurate, strong, and positive.
  • Rather than completely cutting of their internet connectivity, how can children’s curiosity be fostered while allowing them to safely connect with the world, and fuel it into purposeful means of creation.
  • Whilst many platforms educate audiences on digital platforms utilizing an unhelpful fear-based approach, today, levels of awareness have risen and the approach is thus changing to become more positive.
  • Inspiring others to think how they can best contribute to the digital world in a positive way, that brings out the best in them. Perhaps they may share their creative talents by sharing an essay, artwork, or a musical piece, or share their progress in a certain sport they are passionate about.
  • Understand that although account settings may be labelled “private”, nothing is truly private online, as private accounts can get hacked. Moreover, companies can easily choose to change their privacy policies. If it’s something we wouldn’t want thousands of people or even certain family members to see one day, then we should should reconsider sharing it online.
  • Sitting in the driver’s seat and controlling one’s digital footprint journey, rather than allowing others to determine what direction and form our digital footprint takes.
  • The tricky part of digital footprints is that we are not always capable of being in control. Remember that digital footprints can be active, meaning the content or interactions one actively chooses to post online. But they can also be passive and out of our control; “Images can be altered. Data is stored and accessed without our knowledge. Words can be misquoted. Intentions can be misread. Personal interactions can be shared. Individuals can be tagged without permission. We can’t assume we always have control.” Therefore we must assume that we are being watched all the time.

Key Steps to Protect our Digital Footprint:

  1. Stop and think about any content before posting or sharing online. Before posting on a public website, imagine how it would look to a future employer or on the front page of a newspaper.
  2. Personal information or opinions sent to one person can be shared with a larger audience.
  3. Googling oneself can be a good habit to get into (try multiple search engines). Remember to try common misspellings as well.
  4. Old or inactive accounts should be disabled or deleted.
  5. Certain personal details should be kept private. Control the privacy settings on online accounts. Set online profiles to private—check every now and then to make sure the settings haven’t changed. 
  6. Be mindful of the digital footprints of each other (e.g. Ask before tagging others in photos). Choose to be respectful and responsible online, and always remember the golden rule: treat others online as you would like to be treated. Also keep an eye on photos tagged by your friends and remove ones that are offensive.
  7. Remember to at least skim the terms and conditions before signing up for anything online. Some apps state that they will keep collecting  data, even if the app is deleted.
  8. Google Alert can be set up to send alerts when any content about a specific name is posted online. This is a good way to track our children and our own digital footprints.

We may all sometimes regret something we’ve said or posted online, or unintentionally and out of a lack of awareness shared private information. In other cases, other users may be spoiling our online reputation.

What can we do to best clean up our digital footprints and polish our online reputation?

  • What if we realize we had made mistakes that may damage our digital footprints? 
  • Noticing this issue on its own is a first positive step!
  • There are several options to take down inappropriate, damaging, or simply unwanted content, depending on where the content is located.
  •  If the unwanted content is on a website, it is usually possible to contact the website or webmasters directly through the means provided (email, text, call) to explain why the content needs to be removed.
  • If the unwanted content appears via search engines, recent data protection regulations have enabled us to request search engines to remove unwanted personal content.
  • On social media, sometimes inappropriate content is posted by oneself, in which case it is possible to delete the content.
  • How should we react to other users or friends tagging us on unwanted or inappropriate content?
  • First kindly ask them to remove the photo. If they refuse to, then it is possible to contact the website or social media platform to remove it, given that it was posted without consent.
  • Remember that it is futile and inappropriate to get revenge by posting a bad photo of a friend just because they did the same. Two wrongs don’t make a right!

Maintenance going forward: 

  1. Regularly search for our names and possible nicknames or misspellings. 
  2. Remember to set up Google Alert for ourselves to receive an alert when any content about us is posted online.