What Is a Digital Footprint, Exactly?

Kobi Nissan
min read

<hl>We all leave digital breadcrumbs wherever we go, whether we mean to or not.<hl>

What is Digital Footprint

A digital footprint is a unique trail of data you leave behind while using the Internet. An example of a digital footprint could be your browsing history, search history, likes, text messages, tagged photos, and videos, basically anything that leaves a digital trace that could be linked back to you.

While we might be alarmed by the amount of information about us that is available online, the actual volume and complexity of it is much bigger. It is what we fail to see and monitor that we should really be worried about. As we set out to manage our personal online data, the first obstacle standing in our way is not fully understanding what type of information we should be looking out for and where we might expect to find it. To help you get a better concept of how your digital footprint is created, here are the main issues to consider.

Active Digital Footprint: Caught in the Act

Our active digital footprint is comprised of the information we’ve chosen to share with the world. This may include every online form we’ve filled out, profiles of different types we’ve created, and a whole lot more.

When you think about it, every single online transaction requires that we provide certain information. In a world, as connected as ours, this adds up to a massive amount of personal data that was offered by us when booking flight tickets and hotels, shopping for clothes, signing up to free online sessions, and much, much more. Our digital routine includes countless actions and details that are all being remembered and collected for future use.  

The active footprint has also evolved greatly in the past couple of decades, following the rise of social networking websites. For years, Google has been the master of online data by tracking our search history and behavior. When Facebook joined the data party, it decided to take things a step further and instead of just following and studying users’ behavior, invite users to share the information themselves. Now, we all actively offer the world very clear answers as to who we are and what we want.

Passive Digital Footprint: Every step you take

And then there’s our passive digital footprint. A trail of digital breadcrumbs is left on the websites we visit and the search queries we enter, and even if we delete the browsing history on our computer, the websites and analytics tools collecting it still have access to this data long after. With our every step documented and analyzed, it’s no wonder that our passive footprint is also known as the “Digital Exhaust”.

If there’s one good thing about GDPR, it’s the fact that web users worldwide are now more aware of the number of websites that use cookies to track their visitors’ actions. Unfortunately, since most websites do exactly that, the cookie alert has become almost meaningless, almost immediately. It is also important to note that these alerts have more to do with ad personalization, and that disabling cookies entirely on our browser will restrict our online activity, and that clearing cookies from our browser does not, in fact, delete the data that has already been collected by these websites.

Why We Should Care About Our Digital Footprint

Both our active and passive footprints are joined together to form our digital entity, which is analyzed by companies and organizations based on their own criteria. We’ve already reached the point where Facebook knows us better than our best friends, and as technologies in the area of big data and artificial intelligence continue to evolve, so will the possibility of drawing clever and insanely accurate conclusions based on the data we knowingly and unknowingly provide. These technologies may be fascinating to observe, but become quite intimidating when our data and lives are the ones being analyzed.  

Another thing to consider is that while we think we can choose who will gain access to this information, our data is actually being transferred, hacked, and traded online. Eventually, it is being used by many different companies and organizations without our consent or awareness.

Companies don’t necessarily use our data maliciously. We have to admit that being instantly recognized by websites, having auto-filled forms and being offered personalized products and sales is quite the digital perk. But in order to level the playing field and protect our privacy, we must become smarter as well and reclaim ownership of our personal data.

As we can see, a real need exists for tools that will map out our digital footprint and allow us to both understand and manage it ourselves. It’s time we put our foot down.