Your digital footprint encompasses all the actions you take online, as well as the information collected and published by third-party services. From engaging on social media to watching a movie online, every click, like, and comment contributes to your digital trail.
As the digital world intervenes with our daily lives more and more, the importance of managing this trail cannot be overstated. Not only does your digital footprint reveal your interests, affiliations, and personal characteristics, but it is also a goldmine of sensitive data. Neglecting it may lead to reputation damage, job loss, financial fraud, and even identity theft. On the other hand, taking control of your online presence gives you an advantageous online image and protects you from scams.
This article will guide you on finding and deleting your digital footprint, as well as preventing it from growing in the future.
How to find your digital footprint
It’s important to understand that your digital footprint is generated not only through your intentional actions but without direct user action or even knowledge as well. Take data brokers – they collect your personal information from public records and other databases and publish it online without your consent. Then there are website cookies that track and store your online behavior and preferences. These types of footprints are called passive and can be very hard, often impossible, to find.
However, while you may not be able to find your entire digital footprint, you can still find a good deal of it if you use the right approach and tools.
Start by looking yourself up on Google (and any other search engines you use) to see which websites show up. Make sure to try all variations of your name (including your middle name, nicknames, and maiden name), and current and previous phone number and home address. The top results will likely include:
- Social media profiles and posts
- Links to your profiles on data broker sites
- Job boards and business directories
- News articles
- Comments or articles if you’ve written any
This will give you an idea of what’s out there already and help evaluate how other people see your online identity.
Check for your profiles on data brokers
As mentioned before, data broker sites gather your personal data from public records and various other sources and post it online. Also called people-search websites, these platforms allow anyone to look up other people (as the name suggests) and find their legal name, home address, phone number, family ties, income level, political affiliations, credit score, and other sensitive details. There are hundreds of data brokers out there and all of them can potentially contribute to your digital footprint.
Use Onerep to find your data on 199 data broker and people-search sites. Onerep will scan these websites and provide a detailed report with a list of data brokers that expose your personal information.
Request data collected by social media platforms
For one, your digital footprint on social media includes all the bits you share intentionally – your name, photos, locations, contact details, age group, connections, posts, etc. Another part of your digital footprint on social networks is created without your knowledge as these platforms track and store your behavioral patterns, engagement habits, and preferences.
Luckily, social media platforms are obliged to share what data they have gathered on you if you request so. That is usually done through the Settings of each site.
Use Have I Been Pwned
Your email address is another vulnerable piece of information. Not only does it store your name, contacts, and messages, but it may also reveal what online platforms you’ve signed up for and what surveys you have taken. Have I Been Pwned? allows you to check if your email address has been in a data breach. If it has, you should log into the affected site or app, change your password, and check for any irregularities in the account. Note that if hackers were able to get into your account using the breached email, they may have stolen other personal information stored in it as well.
See if your accounts have been affected by a data breach
No company, however big or small, is completely immune to data breaches. According to The Identity Theft Resource Center’s report, there have been 2,116 data compromises through the first nine months of 2023, breaking the all-time high of 1,862 compromises in 2021.
Normally, companies are required by law to inform their customers if a breach has occurred. However, it is still recommended to check data breach reports and follow relevant news to see the full extent of the breach and be able to evaluate what information has been compromised. You can also rely on services like Bitdefender Digital Identity Protection that scan the web for unauthorized leaks of your personal data.
How to delete digital footprint
As already mentioned, it’s impossible to find and, subsequently, delete your whole digital footprint. Unless you stop going online altogether, you will always leave a trail behind. Parts of this trail will always be stored by third-party services and you’ll have no access to them.
However, you can vastly minimize your digital footprint and control what information about you is publicly accessible. This will safeguard you from 95% of online threats. More critical measures are needed only in case you’re a high-profile individual or are involved with special agencies and the government.
Note that the process of deleting your digital footprint is ongoing and should be handled systematically. Here are the steps you can take:
Step 1: Remove yourself from data broker and people-search websites
To delete your personal information from data brokers, you need to visit each one and submit an opt-out request individually. Note that removing yourself only from major sites isn’t enough, you need to find all the profiles out there and remove each one. Moreover, data brokers often update their databases and your information may be republished, so you need to go back every couple of months and recheck.
Onerep can do it all for you in an automated mode. We scan 199 data broker and people-search sites to find your profiles, send opt-out requests, and then continually monitor each site to ensure they don’t republish your information. If they do, we begin the opt-out process again.
Step 2: Delete social media accounts
With new apps trending year to year, most people have active social profiles they’re not using anymore. In case you’re not ready to leave social media completely, make sure to adjust your privacy settings. Allow only those you know to see your accounts and posts and restrict what information these platforms themselves can track and share with third parties.
Step 3: Delete old and unused online accounts
Deactivate and get rid of email, shopping, forums, dating, banking accounts, and any streaming and subscription service you no longer use. Before you delete your old email account, check what platforms you have signed up for using it to see if you haven’t forgotten about any.
Step 4: Ask third parties to remove your information
These are the platforms that have information about you that you don’t have direct access to. They include business directories, job boards, company pages, news platforms, other people’s blogs, marketing databases, and so on. The photos of you posted by your friends or colleagues fall under this category as well. Contact the platform owner or the person who made the post and ask to have your information removed. Note that this method doesn’t always work as some platforms ignore such requests.
Step 5: Delete old links from internet archives
Even after you delete online pages, they can still show up on internet archive sites, such as Archive.org. If personal details are stored there after you’ve removed them elsewhere, you can submit a request to have those archive pages deleted. Similarly, you can use Google’s outdated content removal tool to delete links to pages that no longer exist from Google search results.
Step 6: Erase browsing history and cookies
The websites you visit collect all sorts of information about you via cookies. Some of those are session cookies that are erased when you close your web browser, while others, called persistent cookies, remain for much longer. Regularly erasing browsing history and cookies stops websites from tracking multiple types of your data and erases personal information from your browser.
Digital footprint removal: sustaining your digital hygiene
The best practice to prevent your digital footprint from growing is to minimize what you share online in the first place. Here are some additional tips to help you manage your digital you and sustain your digital hygiene:
- Be mindful of your active digital footprint (the trail left via your direct and intentional actions) – don’t overshare, provide only the necessary information, and think twice before you click on some questionable content
- Adjust privacy settings on social media
- Avoid using your real details for online services, loyalty programs, or newsletters. Use dummy data instead
- Create separate email accounts for work and personal accounts. Use a disposable or dummy email address when you sign up for a new service
- Set up Google alerts on your name
- Reject website cookies to stop them from tracking you
- Use a Virtual Private Network to hide your IP address
- Browse in incognito mode or use privacy software like DuckDuckGo and Tor
- Improve security on your devices: keep your software up-to-date, install antivirus and tools that block ads and trackers
- Improve your account security: set up strong passwords and 2-factor authentication. Consider using a password manager
- Restrict mobile app permissions
How can I delete my digital footprint for free?
Free ways to delete your digital footprint include deleting and deactivating any old and unused accounts, opting out of people-search sites, deleting your browsing history and cookies, and removing your information published by third parties.
How long does digital footprint last?
The longevity of your digital footprint varies. For example, once you delete social media posts and comments, they won't be visible to other users but may still exist in backups or on servers for a certain period. Session website cookies are usually deleted once you close your web browser. However, persistent cookies will remain, usually until manually deleted. You may erase browsing history on your devices, but it may still be stored by internet service providers (ISPs). Advertising networks collect and store information about your online activity and preferences for extended periods for targeted advertising and analytics.
Can anyone see my digital footprint?
Your digital footprint is accessible by different people and entities depending on its nature. Anyone can look you up and find your social profiles, profiles on people-search sites, and business directory listings. Internet service providers have access to your browsing history and IP address. Website cookies can track your preferences and browsing habits.
Do Google searches count as digital footprints?
Yes, Google searches contribute to your digital footprints. Any activities you perform via Google's products become part of your online footprint. More specifically, your searches can be accessed not only by the company itself but by your service provider, investigators, the police, the government, hackers, network administrators, and other apps or services that pay Google for it.
Does private browsing mode or incognito mode affect my footprint?
Yes, browsing in a private mode will hide the traces of your online activities only to a certain extent. While it certainly improves your online privacy, ISPs will still see your IP address and may have access to your browsing history. Cookies will still collect information about your device, behavior, preferences, etc.
If I keep my social media accounts private, does it affect my digital footprint?
The answer is both yes and no. When you set your accounts to private, you limit what outside people and companies can find about you, thus improving your internet privacy. However, those who follow you will still see all your activities. Moreover, social platforms themselves will still track your personal data and online behavior.