A digital footprint refers to the data Internet users leave behind as they navigate the Web. It’s a collection of information about a person’s online activities that can be gathered from several sources, including social media platforms, online forums, and browsing histories.

Remember the trail of breadcrumbs Hansel and Gretel left so they can get back home? Digital footprints work the same way. They can be traced back to specific people or organizations and can significantly impact their employment, education, reputation, security, and other aspects of their lives or operations.

Read More about a Digital Footprint

A digital footprint is a compilation of data users deliberately or unintentionally share online. Techslang explains it in greater detail.

How Is a Digital Footprint Used?

Knowing what a digital footprint is, we now understand that it can be used in the following ways:

  • Targeted advertising: Advertisers can collect and use a user’s browsing history, search queries, interests gleaned from social media activities, and even location data to target them with relevant ads.
  • Social media and online communities: Social media sites leverage a person’s digital footprint to personalize his experience. The sites suggest connections based on a user’s activities, tailor news feeds to his interests, and even use facial recognition to suggest people he may know.
  • Background checks and reputation management: Potential employers or educational institutions can look at applicants’ online presence, including their social media profiles, to get a sense of their character and qualifications.
  • Malicious purposes: Threat actors can use a person’s or an organization’s digital footprint to look for ways to launch phishing, impersonation, account takeover, fraud, and other types of cyber attacks.

How Is a Digital Footprint Created?

Digital footprints can be created actively or passively.

Active digital footprints refer to information individuals and organizations deliberately share online, while passive digital footprints comprise any information gathered in the background, even when you didn’t intentionally and knowingly share it.

Active and passive sources of digital footprint

What Are Examples of Active Sources of Digital Footprints?

Active digital footprints can come from:

  • Social media platforms: Every post, comment, like, or share you made on social media platforms adds to your digital footprint.
  • Online forums and communities: Participating in discussions on forums, message boards, or online communities leaves traces of your opinions and viewpoints.
  • Website forms and accounts: Filling out forms on websites, registering for accounts, or making online purchases generates data that becomes part of your digital footprint. Information like names, email addresses, purchase histories, and preferences can be collected.
  • Cloud storage and online documents: Uploading documents, photos, or videos to cloud storage platforms or collaborating on online documents creates a record of user activity and the type of content shared.

What Are Examples of Passive Sources of Digital Footprints?

Here are ways on how your online activity can be passively tracked.

  • Browsing and search history: Websites you visit and the time you spend on them are often logged, creating a browsing history that reflects your interests and online habits. In addition, the things you search for using search engines can reveal a lot about your needs, curiosities, and areas of research.
  • IP address: All Internet-connected devices have a unique IP address that can be used to pinpoint your general geographic location.
  • Cookies: Websites store small data files called “cookies” to track your activities and device preferences. These cookies can be used to personalize your online experience and contribute to your digital footprint.
  • Location services: Many applications and websites request access to your device’s location. When enabled, they can track your physical whereabouts, adding another layer to your digital footprint.

For organizations, passive sources of their digital footprints can include the following:

  • Supply chain: An organization’s software and services can create passive footprints. They can include data on subscriptions, licenses, and user activity within those applications.
  • Shadow IT: Employees who use unauthorized applications or cloud services can create hidden digital footprints. That can be risky, as the organization may not be aware of the data being collected or stored.
  • Data leaks and breaches: Even if a data breach isn’t publicly known, it can expose an organization’s data handling practices and potentially reveal sensitive information.

Can You Delete Digital Footprints?

Unfortunately, deleting your entire digital footprint is nearly impossible because they are not stored in one place. Data is scattered across multiple servers and databases owned by different entities.

Even if you manage to delete data from your own accounts, copies may still exist in backup storage or logs maintained by service providers.

Third-party data brokers may also collect information about you from various sources and sell it to interested parties. Once your information lands with a data broker, it becomes even more challenging to track down and erase.

Since digital footprints are difficult to erase and you don’t always have complete control over how they are used, it’s essential to be mindful of what you share online.

Key Takeaways