Digital Footprints

Monday Author: Susanne Skinner 

“It’s illegal to use Brad Pitt’s image to sell a watch without his permission, but Facebook is free to use your name to sell one to your friends.”  ~ Eli Pariser

The Internet is a very public place and each time you visit you leave digital footprints behind. Your on-line activities contribute to the public profile of who you are to anyone searching for you. Don’t think anyone does? Think again…

A digital footprint is the trail of data you create while using the Internet.  Every search creates a cookie, or data packet, sent by an Internet server to a browser, then returned by the browser each time it accesses the same server, identifying you as the user.   Consider the things you do on line; social media, Skype, apps you use, surveys you take, things you upload, download, purchase and of course, email. These combine to create your on-line history and can be seen by other people or tracked in a database.

Profiles are attractive to companies targeting specific markets and demographics.  Employers use your profile to check your background, advertisers track your buying habits and bad guys use it to hack your accounts. Your digital footprints lead the way.

A digital footprint is the trail of data you create while using the Internet. Every search creates a cookie, or data packet, sent by an Internet server to a browser, then returned by the browser each time it accesses the same server, identifying you as the user.

Your browser stores each data packet in a small file that contains information about your visit to the web page, as well as any information you’ve volunteered, such as contact information, interests and location. Only the website that creates a cookie can read it, so other servers do not have access to your information. Web servers can only use information you provided as content in their cookies.

Cookies can be used maliciously. They store information about a user’s browsing preferences and history and act as a form of spyware. Computers protected by anti-spyware (and yours should be) will flag these for deletion during regular scans. 

Footprints in the Digital Sand

There are two types of digital footprints. The first is a passive digital footprint, also known as the data trail you unintentionally leave on line. It starts with a visit to a website. A web server logs your IP address, which in turn identifies your internet service provider or ISP, then pinpoints your approximate location.

Your active digital footprint is personal data you intentionally submit on line for the purpose of sharing information through websites or social media. This includes personal data, uploading videos or photos, sign-ups, attachments, and the unending “who/what are you” quizzes that pop up on social media. Stop taking these!!

Whether you are contributing to it or downloading it, viral content places you at risk. What happens on line lives on line forever. Just because you decided to remove a post or delete a file doesn’t means it’s gone. It’s still there, embedded in the social network DNA.

Your search history is part of the trail you leave, saved by search engines when you log in.  Every step you take in the virtual world provides insight into who you are and where you are. The more content we voluntarily contribute, the easier we make it to be found.

It’s not all negative. Those who post wisely reap the benefits. Blog posts and contributions can work to your advantage on professional web sites like Linked In.

Who’s Watching You?

The short answer is everyone.  If you use the internet you can be found.

Who's watching you? The short answer is everyone.   If you use the internet you can be found.Web sites are skilled at persuading you to give them information. Each time you are prompted, ask yourself if you really want to enter that information and be very aware of how it might be used or shared.

With today’s technology your reputation on line and in the real world are one and the same. There are over 1.5 billion Web surfers worldwide, and content posted by any of them can become viral in a matter of seconds, including yours.

You can unintentionally share data if your security is breached. Unsecured Wi-Fi is most often the culprit. Cafes and airports are prime places for someone to steal your information.

Pay attention to warning messages that appear on your devices. They tell you a server’s identity can’t be verified and show a “continue” prompt, asking if you want to proceed.  Despite the warning and the risk, 92% do.

And then there’s this. A study by the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Market Research found 26 percent of college admission offices use search engines to research applicants. They aren’t unique. One questionable post, photo or comment might cost you, a friend or a family member an education, a scholarship, an interview or even a job.

Like to tweet?  The Library of Congress has acquired the entire Twitter archive, which includes all tweets since March 2006. That’s a lot of too much information in one place.

Cyber Dust

If it’s out there, it can be found.  Even the best efforts to eradicate your internet footprints leave a trail of cyber dust.  Third-party data brokers can take bits of personal information from internet clouds, social networks and retail data and construct a profile of you.  It’s easier than any of us imagine.If it’s out there, it can be found. Even the best efforts to eradicate your internet footprints leave a trail of cyber dust. Third-party data brokers can take bits of personal information from internet clouds, social networks and retail data and construct a profile of you. It’s easier than any of us imagine.

Because of the increasing need to reduce digital footprints, Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, Firefox, and Safari implemented the concept of private browsing by limiting the ability to control how much history the browser stores in its cache, then added upgrades to disable tracking.

These work well from the browser perspective, but most websites use JavaScript which means the data collected no longer resides on your machine, but on another server outside of your control. Improvements can’t always stay ahead of the threats.

Never dispose of an old computer without completely destroying the hard drive and never let a repair shop or store keep an old drive. The most effective way to render it unreadable is to drill a few holes through it. Don’t rely on erase tools.

No matter how thorough a data-wiping program is, the only way to be certain a hard drive’s data is unrecoverable is by making the drive’s platters unable to spin. A drill works every time.

The Internet Society created this video to help you manage your digital footprints. It’s worth a listen. Think before you post.

One thought on “Digital Footprints

  1. While I can certainly understand using what a person posts – voluntarily mind you! – about themselves, in reading about how ONE POST that someone finds “offensive” can ruin you… it’s frightening.

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