Published Published July 2, 2021
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Your digital footprint: how to protect your privacy online

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We all know how important first impressions are — but did you know your digital footprint will be your first impression for potential employers, college scouts, and professional committees? Whenever you use the internet, a lot of personal data is generated. Over time, this information accumulates into a digital footprint, which anyone can find online. How can we be sure that it shows us at our best? How can we keep our privacy intact?

What’s a digital footprint?

When someone talks about your digital footprint, they’re referring to all of the personal information about you on the internet — whether you know about it or not. Digital footprint definitions often call it an online presence since it’s the totality of the details that pop up when someone searches for you online.

The more information that’s out there, the larger your digital footprint is. There may even be unsavory bits of information that will be accessible to anyone who looks up your name. This can both harm your reputation and put your privacy at risk.

How is a digital footprint created?

Let’s take a closer look at the information that makes up a digital footprint. Every time you make a post or connect with friends, update your LinkedIn account, comment on news articles, subscribe to a service, experience a life event that creates a public record (like marriage), or even just use social media on your devices, you leave behind a trace.

However, a digital footprint isn’t just the product of information you’ve added to the internet. Other entities play a big part in creating it too — often without your knowledge. For instance, every time you receive a prompt to accept cookies (or even if the site doesn’t ask permission), someone is retrieving your data. Worse yet, data brokers that live off by profiling people are constantly combing the internet for new information to add to your profile, which they then sell to anyone who wants it. 

This is one of the most worrisome parts of a digital footprint — unless you’ve taken steps to manage it, you simply don’t have control over it. Your personal information will keep being stored or published, even if it’s inaccurate or inappropriate, making your digital footprint grow in size. 

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How digital footprints are (ab)used

A digital footprint isn’t just a cybersecurity concept — it has very real applications and consequences. Let’s take a look at three ways that people can use your footprint for better or worse.

1. Character assessment: Since the internet makes up so much of our professional and personal lives, maintaining a positive digital footprint is essential for your reputation. Employers, schools, and committees often run searches to get insights into candidates’ personalities. Depending on what they find, your digital footprint could have life-changing consequences.

2. Cybercrime: Cybercriminals have also become savvy at exploiting digital footprints. Once they have a bit of information about you, it isn’t hard to follow the traces to your other accounts all across the internet. From there, they can find even more of your private data, e.g. on data brokers and people-search sites. This could lead to any number of crimes, such as breaking into your financial accounts, stealing your identity, using embarrassing content to collect ransom or engage in cyberstalking.

3. Data brokers: As we already mentioned, data brokers and people-search sites mine the internet for as much of your data as possible — and then publish it in profiles to make a profit. These websites largely depend on public records and digital footprints. They can include over thirty types of data, like your name, home address, phone number, family relations, income, credit score, the taxes you pay, your social media profiles, and sometimes even your Social Security number.

How to check my digital footprint

Unfortunately, you can’t just search “what’s my digital footprint?” on Google. A digital footprint is a nebulous collection of information about you across the internet. It looks different depending on who is searching for you, and you can’t always be sure that you’ve seen the whole thing. Here are some of the most effective ways to check up on your digital footprint as holistically as possible.

Crack your own digital footprint on search engines 

Open up a new tab using your browser’s incognito or anonymous mode, and then search your name on multiple search engines. This will make sure you aren’t served up personalized results, giving you a more accurate idea as to what others see when they search for you.

What do you see when you look through the first few pages of results? You can also try adding your college, profession, or location after your name. Is this information representative of how you’d like to be portrayed in personal or professional settings?

Use OneRep’s free scan to assess your online presence

If you want to be thorough, you can use OneRep’s free privacy scan to locate your information. Our platform scours 199 data brokers and people-search sites to see which ones list your personal details. Once the scan is done, see the results in an easy-to-read dashboard. From there, you can begin a five-day trial to start scrubbing your personal details from these sites. 

Take control of your personal information online

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How to protect my digital footprint

The key to managing your online privacy is knowing how to reduce your digital footprint, remove embarrassing or negative information from it, and curate positive information for it. This can be accomplished by following the steps below. 

Step 1: Opt out of data brokers

Unfortunately, these websites don’t make it easy for you to take down your information. Each of the 199 people-search engines requires unique, cumbersome steps to opt out. We made free manual opt-out guides to streamline this process. Another option is to sign up to OneRep and use our privacy protection tool to automatically remove you from most of these sites — and keep you off.

Step 2: Update your privacy settings

Make sure you set your social media accounts to private. This will ensure that no one can see your posts unless you’ve approved them as friends. This is one of the easiest and most impactful ways to control your digital footprint. If having a public profile is important to your professional career, consider having a private personal account and a public professional account.

Step 3: Monitor your digital footprint with Google Alerts

Google Alerts is one of the best tools available to monitor your digital footprint in real-time. Simply enter common variations of your name with other identifying factors, and Google will tell you when new content appears using your name.

Step 4: Check for compromised credentials

You can use tools like “Have I Been Pwned?” to search millions of data breaches for your login credentials. Enter your email addresses, phone numbers, and passwords to see which accounts require your immediate attention.

Step 5: Build your online reputation

You don’t need to let other sites determine your reputation for you. Consider creating a website to discuss the projects you’re working on and post an online resume. You can even contribute articles to news outlets or professional journals relevant to your work.

Step 6: Use a different email for throw-away accounts

If you’re signing up for a website or services that aren’t too important, consider using a secondary email. This will keep your personal email private, and it’ll make it easier to see important notices in your primary email since all of those promotional and spammy messages are routed to another inbox.

Step 7: Keep your devices and software updated

It’s crucial to update your devices to their latest operating system versions and to keep your software up to date. These updates aren’t just visual — they cover up critical security issues as they arise.

Step 8: Don’t overshare

Setting your social media account to private is a great idea, but you still shouldn’t overshare personal information. There’s no guarantee that your private posts will remain private, and it only takes one imposter with a convincing friend request to see your feed.

Step 9: Keep a list of every online account

You should also know which websites and services are accessing your information. Make sure you keep a running list of all of your accounts. Regularly go through it and delete or deactivate accounts that you aren’t using often or that share too much of your information.

Step 10: Use strong passwords with 2FA

Changing your passwords to long randomized strings of letters, numbers, and special characters can keep your account secure from password crackers. However, to protect against data breaches, always enable two-factor authentication (2FA), which will require your approval whenever new sign-ins are detected.

How to erase your digital footprint (in severe cases)

What if your digital footprint seems too far gone? You still have options. Whether you’ve been the victim of a crippling data breach, a doxxer who has posted harmful materials about you, or another alarming life event, it’s important to know how to erase your digital footprint. While these tips won’t be relevant for everyday privacy-conscious individuals, if you run into a serious issue, here’s what you can do.

Delete your social media accounts: If you want to go completely dark, taking down social media is essential. Back up your data if necessary, and then go through every account you can think of and deactivate them one by one.

Scrub all forum discussions and comments: Think back to message boards, forums, and similar websites, such as Reddit. Have you left comments or created posts? Locate your account, delete all comments and posts, and then delete your account.

Delete other services and accounts: Think of as many secondary services and websites that required an account, especially blogs and website creators. Find them and delete them. If possible, request that the site delete your data as well.

Unsubscribe from all newsletters: Go through all of your email addresses and unsubscribe from as many newsletters as possible. This includes going through spam and promotional messages. This may also remind you of long-unused accounts that should be deleted.

Delete all emails; make a new one: Create a new email and associate your most important accounts to it, such as financial, governmental, health, and employment accounts. Then, when you’re positive that all important accounts are accessible with the new email, delete all other email addresses.

Request removal from Google: While there’s no guarantee that this will always work, you can request certain website content to be removed from Google. In situations where site owners aren’t willing to take down this sensitive content, taking it straight to Google can help.

Wrapping up

To manage your digital footprint, you need to remove negative search entries, create positive ones, and keep the rest of your information as private as possible. One of the biggest sources of your private information exposure is data brokers and people-search sites. Take your privacy under control by using OneRep to automatically scrub your information from over 199 of these sites. 

image 25 3 Erin Kapczynski SVP, B2B Marketing at OneRep

Erin has worked with and inside tech companies for most of her career, including in cybersecurity.

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