Is Your Phone Listening to You?
You’ve probably heard of the term “online footprint” before. But do you know what it means for you and your digital privacy?
Every website you visit, app you use, and form you fill out leaves a trace – or footprint – online. On their own, these steps don’t mean much. But when pieced together, they can paint a vivid picture of who you are that’s accessible to anyone from advertisers to scammers.
(In other words, your phone doesn’t have to listen to you. By using your devices, shopping, and browsing online, you tell companies all they need to know about you.)
So, should you be worried about how much personal information is in your online footprint? And what if you want to erase or clean it up? That’s what we’re going to cover in this guide.
What Is a Digital Footprint?
An online footprint — also known as a “digital footprint” or “digital shadow” — is a digital trail of data that tracks your online activities.
Your online footprint consists of thousands of data points spread across different platforms. Every Google search, Facebook like, and Amazon purchase is part of your footprint.
On their own, these pieces of data don't mean much. But when combined, they reveal a shockingly accurate picture of who you are.
Nearly everyone who’s ever used the internet has an online footprint. If you’ve ever searched for a product on one site and seen ads for the same product later somewhere else, you’ve seen the effects of yours.
If you want to get an idea of your online footprint, take a look at what Google knows about you based on your search history.
It can feel creepy at times. So what can people find out about you in your online footprint?
What Personal Information Is in My Online Footprint?
Everyone’s online footprint is different depending on how you use the internet. But in general, there are two types of online footprints you need to be aware of.
- Active digital footprints are made up of the data you choose to share. This includes posting a status update on social media or uploading a video to YouTube.
- Passive digital footprints are made up of data you don’t necessarily know is being tracked. For example, almost every site you visit collects information about your device, location, IP address, where you click, and how long you stay on a site.
Every product you’ve searched for, clicked on, or purchased while shopping online is part of your online footprint.
This data has become incredibly valuable for online retailers. For example, Amazon’s ad business just reported $26 billion in revenue [*] — powered by the data it collects about you and your shopping habits. And they’re not the only ones. Nearly every e-commerce shop tracks the same amount of data.
Watch and listen history on Netflix, Spotify, etc.
Sites like YouTube, Netflix, Spotify, and SoundCloud collect and share information about what you watch or listen to. This information helps them “suggest” other artists or videos you might like. But it also becomes part of your online footprint.
Social media likes, comments, and updates
Every status update, like, and comment you post on Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, and other social media sites is tracked. For example, if you click on a used car listing on Facebook Marketplace, that becomes part of your online footprint.
📚 Related: Someone Bought a Car in My Name! What Should I Do? →
Online search history
Your online footprint also includes everything you've ever searched for or clicked on in a search engine (like Google). Search history is usually paired with the dates and times you searched, and how many times (if any) you returned to certain results.
Internet browsing history
Your entire browsing history is also tracked and stored as part of your footprint. Browsing data includes your IP address (a unique identifier for your device), device type, and geolocation.
Browsing data also includes how you browse. For example, how long you stayed on a site, what you clicked, where you came from, and where you went afterward.
Your internet service provider — such as Comcast or Charter — also collects a complete list of every site you’ve ever visited and the timestamps for those visits.
Fitness and health data
Your online footprint can also contain health data from apps like MyFitnessPal, or wearables like Apple Watch and Fitbit. Your smartphone might also track fitness data, such as steps per day, by default.
Newsletters and emails you receive
Even your inbox isn't safe from your online footprint. All your subscriptions, coupons, spam, and personal and business mail you receive is added. If you use a service like Gmail, Google reads your emails to provide personalized auto-fill features and spam protection.
Private messages through apps and social media
The content of your private messages can also make it into your online footprint — even from seemingly "private" messaging apps. Data revealed from apps like Snapchat, Telegram, and WhatsApp have put people in prison.
That’s a lot of potentially sensitive information that’s easily accessible to anyone who goes looking. Should you be worried?
How Clean is Your Online Footprint?
Having an online footprint is a mixed bag. It’s easy to get caught up in the potential dangers (like identity theft or fraud) and the creepy factor of strangers knowing so much about you.
But there are also benefits to having an online footprint, such as:
- Better recommendations: Your online footprint powers Netflix’s recommendations and Facebook’s suggested friends functionality.
- Faster searching: A digital history of where you’ve been makes it easier to go back to a site even when you can’t remember its name.
- Your own “personal shopper”: Your digital footprint helps e-commerce sites suggest products you'll actually like.
Your footprint makes browsing and shopping online more convenient. But what are you giving up in return for that better experience?
Does My Digital Footprint Expose My Privacy Online?
The most dangerous aspect of your online footprint is that you don’t know how big it is.
Plus, with every app and site sharing information and keeping archives none of us could eliminate our entire digital trail — even if we wanted to. This means even parts of your life you wanted to keep private can be revealed online.
So what are some of the specific dangers of a big online footprint?
- It can reveal religious and political affiliations. Separate data points that aren’t significant by themselves — such as your favorite movies or bands — can reveal sensitive information, like your religious or political affiliation.
- Your online reputation can be damaged. Old posts, photos, and videos can be taken out of context and end up damaging your reputation. Plus, some sites create their own internal rating systems based on your actions. For example, Facebook creates “trustworthiness scores” for certain users based on how likely those users are to share false information.
- You could be turned down for a loan. Lenders often look at online information to determine if you’ll pay back a loan on time. But with a large digital footprint, they could be looking at irrelevant or old information.
- You’ll get more spam emails and phone calls. Your information can be shared publicly or sold to third parties, which is one of the reasons you get spam emails and phone calls.
- Potential employers get access to your personal (and outdated) info. A recent study showed that seven out of ten employers research applicants on social networking sites. And 57% rejected a candidate because of information they found online (but wouldn’t be able to legally ask about in an interview).
- Criminals can exploit your personal information. Personal information from data breaches or that you post online is ideal for cybercriminals. With enough info, they can commit identity theft, extortion, bank scams, cyberbullying, or phishing.
Finally, online footprints also present potential dangers to children.
The current generation is the first to live their entire lives with social media. The digital footprints they create now (and the ones their parents make for them on social media), will never go away.
This puts them more at risk of child identity theft as more of their sensitive information is available.
Can I Erase My Online Footprint?
Unfortunately, no. Your online footprint can never truly be erased, however there are steps you can take to minimize your online presence.
Even if you ditch your smartphone, internet service, and social media accounts, the data tech companies and advertisers have about you will never fully disappear. But that doesn’t mean your footprint needs to be a negative part of your online life.
Instead of trying to eliminate your online footprint, work to reduce it wherever possible.
10 Ways to Protect Your Digital Footprint
1. Think twice about what you post
Anything you say on a social media platform could live on throughout your lifetime. To protect your personal information on social media, first consider sharing less. If you do share, make sure it’s something that doesn’t impact your online reputation or could cause you harm.
As a rule, don’t share personally identifiable information (PII) online. This includes your email address, mailing address, phone number, bank information, and ID numbers like your Social Security number, driver’s license, and passport. If you have kids, make sure they also know to never share personal information online.
Be especially careful with your SSN as it's not always possible to change your social security number, even after identity theft.
2. Adjust your privacy settings
The default settings on most platforms make your online presence all too easy to capture. Consider limiting who can see your posts on the social media sites you use like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram. But remember, these settings don’t guarantee privacy.
📚 Related: How To Recover a Hacked Instagram Account →
3. Consider the privacy tradeoff of new apps and accounts
Before signing up for a new email newsletter or creating a new account, think about the cost of adding more data to your digital footprint. Do the benefits of the service outweigh the data it will collect and share about you?
4. Create a Google Alert for your name
A Google Alert will let you know any time your name appears online. (You’ll increase your footprint with Google, but this step is nonetheless worth it for most of us.) This way, you can see what sites are creating an online footprint for you and potentially delete unwanted ones.
5. Avoid using public Wi-Fi
Free networks at airports and coffee shops are notoriously easy to hack. Use smartphone data whenever possible. If you must use public Wi-Fi, consider a VPN (virtual private network) that will secure your connection and block malware and phishing attacks.
6. Don’t use single-account sign-ins ("Sign in with Facebook")
Skip the option to “sign in with Facebook'' (or Google, or Apple, or anything else). This offers an even bigger reward to hackers for breaking into one of your accounts as they’ll get access to any others you’ve linked.
7. Delete old accounts and apps
If you aren’t going to use an app, you can reduce further data collection by deleting that account. Old apps and accounts can also become targets for cybercriminals who will take over your accounts and use them to commit frauds and scams.
8. Don’t skip software and OS updates
Most hacks exploit known problems. If you don’t keep up with software updates, you’re giving hackers a backdoor into your personal information. Turn on automatic updates whenever possible.
9. Use an identity protection service to alert you of breaches
Aura will notify you of data breaches where your personal information has been leaked. We can also monitor your other sensitive information for signs of possible identity theft so that you can stay vigilant.
When it comes to preventing identity theft and fraud, speed matters. The sooner you know about the attack, the faster you can shut it down. Aura monitors your accounts and will alert you of any suspicious activity 4X faster than other services.
10. Disable cookies, or use a browser that does
Don’t Let Scammers Follow Your Online Footprint
Unlike the marks in the sand you leave behind as you walk down the beach, your online footprint doesn’t disappear with the tide. But with a few smart choices, you can limit the information that’s available about you online to anyone who goes looking.
Start by changing your browsing habits. Then, consider tools built to give you a safer online experience. With Aura, your critical information is monitored so you know if anyone is using your online footprint for nefarious purposes.
And if the worst happens, we offer 24/7 support to get your digital life back and a $1 million insurance policy for eligible losses due to identity theft.