How To Reduce Your Digital Footprint & Protect Yourself Online

By Haseeb Awan

The less you worry about your digital footprint, the more cyber-criminals and scammers can take advantage of you. They know your footprint and how to use it for their gain. This often leaves people unaware of their online data routes, providing a revenue stream for these criminal elements.

Many people don't realize that when they allow businesses to collect their data, the company has a duty to use it in ways that benefit the customer. Too often, companies will take advantage of personal data and learn as much about the consumer as possible rather than just collecting what is needed. And as these companies gather more information on each individual person, said person's digital footprint gets more extensive and more accessible for other organizations to access without permission.

Cybercriminals can use information from their digital footprint for malicious purposes, such as phishing, to gain access to accounts or create synthetic identities.

You may not be aware that your digital footprint and the security and privacy of your web presence are becoming increasingly important in today's constantly evolving internet world. Maybe you've heard the phrase "digital footprint" before, but you may not know what it entails. Or how to make your online presence more secure and private. However, in our increasingly digital society, being informed on these topics is becoming more critical. So now it's time for a quick rundown of the basics.

What's a Digital Footprint?

Everything we do online--such as social media posts, purchases, account activations, newsletter registrations and more--leaves a digital footprint. This "footprint" often includes our IP address and information about our personal lives that we've shared online.

Just like physical footprints in the snow, your digital footprint is a record of where you've been online. However, while physical footprints will eventually disappear, digital ones may not.

The Different Types of Digital Footprints

Active and passive footprints may be divided into two categories. One is active, while the other is passive. Both of these digital footprints are based on the type of assessment you performed.

Active Digital Footprint

Anytime you make a choice online, you leave behind a digital footprint. This can be as small as posting on social media or filling out an online form.

Your login information on various websites leaves a digital footprint that can be difficult to erase.

  • For example, every time you publish anything on your social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, it leaves a digital trail.
  • Anytime you submit an online form, whether it's for a competition or just providing your contact information, you're leaving behind another digital footprint.
  • For example, you accept cookies from your browser when you agree to the terms on your device.

Passive Digital Footprint

On the other hand, unintentional passive digital footprints are those you leave behind. You're not sure what you're leaving behind, but it's there!

This happens when a website asks for information and continues looking at it. It's not something you set out to do; rather, it all happens inadvertently as you never agreed to supply your data in the first place. This procedure starts when your device's IP address is linked to a website.

The three following examples will help you understand the picture better.

  • Hundreds of thousands of websites want you to install cookies, and they don't always ask. It happens when you provide them with your information and find out about it.
  • Often, when you share, comment, or even like a post on social media, you become the target of a passive digital footprint without knowing it.
  • It commonly occurs when you use apps and websites that utilize your live location to track your whereabouts.

The Pros and Cons of Digital Footprints

Having a personal online presence can be beneficial in more ways than one, like making your time online feel more customized and convenient. The little things make a big difference, such as remembering your last meal or getting targeted deals that are catered specifically to your interests.

By carefully choosing the messages, photos and other information you post online, you can create a positive image of yourself for people who matter to you, like your boss or future employers.

While a digital footprint has many advantages, it also comes with some disadvantages, such as more spam mail, less privacy and the possibility of identity theft. If cybercriminals gain access to your online presence, they can use this information against you in social engineering scams, like phishing attacks.

How To Remain Anonymous Online?

Now that we know digital footprints let's explore the two types.

You leave an active footprint when you use social media, blog, or post photos online. Browser cookies and IP addresses form a passive digital trail. Unlike active digital footprints, you unwittingly create a passive digital one while surfing the Internet, conducting searches, buying things online, and providing opinions and reviews.

The footprints you leave behind on the Internet are critical for marketers. A potential employer or creditor could review your online presence.

How To Reduce Your Digital Footprint?

Here are some quick techniques to decrease your online exposure.

Use VPN

A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, disguises your internet connection and makes you seem to be in a different country. This may be useful for accessing geo-blocked content or maintaining your privacy online.

Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) allow you to access geo-restrictions on websites and multimedia content. However, the security benefit is what truly sells it. Your IP address is hidden by a VPN, making your digital footprint harder to trace. VPNs also protect your online activities by encrypting them. Furthermore, third parties cannot see, sell, or collect your search history thanks to VPNs.

Deactivate Any Old Accounts

If you're not careful, the personal information service providers have on you can last for years, long after you've stopped using their services.

As a result, it's essential to turn off any social media or email accounts that aren't in use.

Be Wary Of Any Free Wi-Fi Connections You Come Across

When you're out and about, it's sometimes tempting to use accessible public Wi-Fi networks for online transactions. However, this can be an inviting theft as these networks are not secure. This goes for WiFis in coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, and grocery stores.

Public Wi-Fi isn't secure, and encryption is rarely used, leaving your data vulnerable to eavesdropping by hackers. They can listen in on conversations, steal passwords, and more with the proper tools.

Switch to your mobile data plan for transactions when on public Wi-Fi. For purchases, use a VPN instead of surfing the web and streaming. Create a personal network within the free Wi-Fi zone with a VPN.

Check For Outdated Settings And Update Them As Necessary

Remember to check the privacy settings on websites you regularly use, mainly social media sites. Also, take care when adding new apps to your smartphone. Please pay attention to what information and permissions they ask for -- like access to your contacts, messages, camera, or microphone. Be extra careful with gaming apps that want access to your contact list; this type of scam is, unfortunately, common and can have dire consequences.

Only Browse Safe Websites

The URL tells it all. Search for "HTTPS" in the URL when going to a website. Websites that use hypertext transfer protocol secure (HTTPS) encrypt the transmitted information to avoid third-party surveillance and interception.

URLs that begin with "HTTP" are less secure than HTTPS because HTTP lack encryption, so it's best to avoid them.

Never give out your personally identifiable information on unsecured websites. It helps to guarantee security and minimize environmental impact.

Opt-Out Of Mailing Lists

When you unsubscribe from an email, the provider still has access to your address and continues adding to your digital footprint.

For example, you may have been granted permission to receive more promotional emails after purchasing on the Internet. Fortunately, unsubscribing is as easy as pie.

Most email lists have a link somewhere at the bottom of each message that will allow you to unsubscribe. You may receive an email with the subject line "unsubscribe" in some cases.

Use Incognito Mode

Private or incognito modes in Google Chrome, Safari, and Edge provide anonymous surfing. Using a browser's private mode may delete its cache, history, and cookies, limiting third-party targeting.

Nonetheless, your internet service provider will have access to a portion of your online activities. To increase privacy, utilize security software or browser add-ons. If you want to browse privately, you may also search using private search engines such as Tor and DuckDuckGo.

Consider Using a Privacy Extension

You may also avoid tracking by blocking third-party cookies and plugins with a browser plugin.

The most popular browsers, including Chrome and Firefox, support HTTPS connections. They also contain a variety of techniques to minimize your footprint. Some block trackers from running, while others exclude websites notorious for gathering too much information about their visitors.

Ensure That Your Browser Settings Are Updated

Only the site you are visiting should be able to send cookies to your computer. Cookies are required for sites to run correctly (for example, you can't stay logged in to Facebook if you don't have cookies). Still, stealthy third-party sites occasionally put cookies on your computer, which causes issues.

Make a habit of regularly clearing your browser history, cache, and cookies. These options are usually found in your browser's Tools or Preferences menu.

For more detailed instructions, see the following:

  1. Internet Explorer

http://support.microsoft.com/kb/260897

  1. Mozilla Firefox 

http://support.mozilla.org/en-US/kb/Deleting%20cookies

  1. Safari

http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?path=Safari/3.0/en/9277.html

  1. Google Chrome

https://support.google.com/chrome/answer/95647?hl=en&hlrm=en

Think Carefully About What You Put Out There

Social media is permanent, so think before you post. If you must share, don't include anything that could ruin your reputation or come back to hurt you later.

Personal information should not be disclosed on the Internet as a general rule. This includes your phone number, email address, mailing address, bank information, and ID numbers like your passport, Social Security number, and driver's license. If you have children, urge them never to provide personal information online.

Your social security number is significant, so be careful with it, as you won't always be able to change it after identity theft.

Get Rid Of What You Don't Need

If you take the time to tally up your open accounts — bank, utility, subscriptions, retail, etc. — you might be surprised at how high the number is.

A great way to reduce your digital footprint is by closing any old accounts you no longer use. Online passwords, email and newsletter subscriptions, and social media accounts are some of the most common forms of password leakage. Online bookmarks, for example, are a type of password leak that affects more than 250 million users worldwide.

The crucial thing is not simply to delete or turn off these accounts--you have to close them completely. For example, if you want to get rid of an email newsletter, don't just unsubscribe from it; also, delete your account. If you want to remove a shopping site's notifications, the quickest approach is deactivating your membership.

Why Should You Reduce Your Digital Footprint?

Generally, companies gather the data they leave behind during digital interactions for promotional purposes. This helps them understand what you like and where you are located.

Although most of it is safe, reducing your digital footprint is still a good security precaution. The advantages of eliminating digital footprints are as follows:

  • Identity theft and Cyberbullying prevention
  • Blocking ads that you don't want to see
  • Keeping your data and privacy secure is essential, especially if you have a business

Although it may not seem like it, leaving digital footprints can benefit your personal and professional development. For example, companies will post ads related to open positions that match your search history if you're looking for a job.

What To Do If I Want To Delete Embarrassing Content Online?

You may have come across worrying forum entries or communications that you don't have the appropriate permissions to remove or discover that intimate personal photographs or videos of yourself have been published without your consent.

The first step you should take is to talk with webmasters and organizations directly.

Contact the website and include a link to the content you want to remove, explain your reasoning, then cross your fingers that they'll agree. But don't get upset if they take their sweet time getting back to you.

The only exception is when the content is sexual in nature, or what is popularly called revenge porn. If these intimate images have been shared without consent and out of spite, you will likely find it easier to get them removed quickly, especially from social media networks.

Not only is it pivotal to get videos or images removed quickly to restrict viewership, but it's imperative for your mental health. Ask friends and relatives to report any distressing posts or email webmasters on your behalf if you can.

However, if your photographs and films were anonymously submitted to controversial websites, you'll be up against it even more — and it may be time to contact the cops.

Please be sure to research your local laws before you post any content, as the person posting could face charges if the law doesn't allow it. For example, revenge porn is against the law in the United Kingdom. If you're a minor, please speak to a trusted guardian or parent who can help guide you through this decision.

What Can I Do If Things Have Gotten Out Of Hand On The Internet?

Starting from the ground up might seem unusual, but it may be worth considering in certain cases. Over time, deleting email accounts, social media platforms, and e-commerce services will make them less likely to appear in your search results and data.

Before taking this final step, save anything you want to keep, like cherished photos on social media or important scanned documents, in your email inbox.

How to Erase Your Digital Footprint?

It will be a tough job if you want to quit the web. You can remove some of your digital footprints (e.g., social media accounts), but there are things you'll never be able to get rid of (e.g., government records).

Although it may be daunting, your digital shadow doesn't have to control you. Removing old emails, messages, and other digital information allows you more freedom and makes for a better online experience.

It's also important to remember that unethical hackers combine your existing data with your current digital footprint to discover a vulnerability. That is why, before deleting an online account, you may wish to remove it altogether so that the firm does not keep copies of your data.

The most straightforward approach to cleaning up your digital record is to do it one account and gadget at a time.

Don't Let Online Scammers Use Your Footprint as an Opportunity to Lure You In

Your online footprint is like a permanent mark and doesn't disappear over time. Although you can't completely hide your information from someone looking for it, you can limit what information is available with some careful choices.

You can improve your online safety by changing the way you surf the web. Additionally, several tools are available to give you an extra layer of protection.

Users should be cautious when going online and using social media platforms. If you're not careful, you risk leaving digital footprints that can lead to threats.

We face many threats when we're online, from data theft to cyberbullying and fraud. But if you follow some simple rules, you can better protect yourself from becoming a victim.

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