How to protect your digital footprint
Ideas to minimize your online footprint and safeguard your data from cyber thieves.
Demographic characteristics, spending habits, personal data: Each one of us leaves all sorts of digital breadcrumbs on websites we may visit every day. If you're thinking about what's included in a digital footprint definition, you must consider all the information that's tracked by companies — when you like someone's post on social media, when you order something online, when you fill out surveys. With much of our lives now shared online, it can be difficult to contain the sprawl.
However, it is important to put safeguards in place as much as you can to guard your data and help prevent identity theft. Cyber thieves are always on the lookout, and they easily find plenty of victims. According to identitytheft.org, in 2021 the Federal Trade Commission received 5.7 million reports for both identity theft and fraud, with more than $5.8 billion in losses for that same year. Here are steps you can take to reduce your digital footprint.
Delete old email accounts
If hackers gain access to an email account you no longer use, they can view contacts, credibly impersonate you, search for personal information and try the same password on other accounts. If you are not regularly using the email address, it may take time for you to notice, leaving even more opportunity for damage.
Limit social media accounts
For many people, deleting social media accounts entirely is not practical or even preferable. Instead, minimize both exposure and the data you share with others by limiting posts to "friends only," turning off location data collection and clicking options to remove your profile from public search engine results. However, if there are accounts you no longer use, deactivate them.
Skip the survey
Steer clear of clickbait questionnaires on random websites. It's simply another way for companies to gather digital insights into you.
Create a spam email address
Create an account specifically for marketing and other promotions such as store discounts, and limit any identifying information you store on that email account. That way, if a marketing database is breached and your account is compromised, you can simply delete it to try to minimize the loss of digital information. (Bonus: This may help drastically cut down on the amount of spam in your "real" email.)
Remove yourself from people search sites
With a few clicks — and usually a few dollars — anyone can learn the names, addresses, telephone numbers and other information about millions of people through online data brokers (often called "people search" sites). And if you become the target of malicious online trolls, they can rapidly spread this information, potentially resulting in ongoing harassment. When you order online or sign up for newsletters or other communications, click the "opt out" button so that sites cannot share your information with marketing database companies. In addition, you can work with online data brokers to opt out. Search for "online data brokers" for a list. Each has different steps — including letters, faxes or other formal requests — to remove yourself, but it may be worth the effort.
Set up stealth mode when you search
Browsers enable you to set up stealth or incognito mode, which allows you to use the internet without saving information to your computer. Search for specific directions based on the browser you use the most.
Other ideas to reduce digital footprint
You can never be too careful when it comes to safeguarding your digital information. Here are some additional tips to help keep it safe:
- Protect your passwords. Creating passwords that are difficult to figure out and updating them on a regular basis can help protect you. If you must write them down, make sure to store them in a safe place. Using multi-factor authentication when available can add an extra layer of protection to your information.
- Update your software on a regular basis. Having the latest software on your laptops and cell phones can help protect your information. This includes having the latest version of antivirus software so it is more difficult for hackers to get to your systems. Having a protected Wi-Fi at home may also reduce the risk of exposure.
- Be in control of your phone apps. Make a list of the apps you have on your phone and check the terms and conditions when getting new apps. Restrict permissions from apps like location, camera and sharing information with others. Understanding how your information is shared with other sites and companies can help you control your digital footprint. Consider deleting apps that you no longer use to reduce the chance of others gathering information about your digital behavior.
- Unsubscribe from mailing lists. You may have provided your email for a one-time coupon or discount resulting in unwanted emails from those companies. By unsubscribing from mailing lists, you can keep your email account cleaner and may help stop potential gathering of information from third parties.