Our digital records are being bought and sold like knockoff jewelry. If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering what in the world you can do to protect your digital footprint.
And if you’re really anything like me, the invasion of privacy has you dreaming that you’re back in school naked – a nightmare that, until now, hasn’t surfaced for decades.
Hackers. Russians. Identity theft. It’s all a little much, right? After I found out that Facebook tracks my every move even when I’m not on the platform, I vowed to take action.
But what could I do?
How could I single-handedly fend off a Russian troll farm and all of Silicon Valley? Is there a way to manage my digital profile and still find time to floss twice a day?
After a bit of research, I discovered that protecting my online identity is more akin to entering a battle than tidying the house for an afternoon. There are literally millions of people around the globe working full-time to get their hands on our data – some of these people are fraudsters and others are legitimately employed marketers.
So while I can’t offer a quick fix, I can assure you that understanding your digital footprint will help you devise your war plan. Once you get the lay of the land, I’ll suggest 3 steps to start protecting your digital footprint.
I can personally promise that once you’ve implemented the plan, you’ll reduce your digital anxiety. And you won’t awaken from nightmares that you’re doing naked algebra — at least not tonight.
Understanding Your Digital Footprint
Your digital footprint is the trail you leave behind when you walk across the landscape of the Internet. You leave impressions everywhere you go—when you like a social media post, when you shop online, and when you use an app that is tracking your location.
Most of us realize that if we post information on a blog or on a LinkedIn profile, that information is public. When we input data about ourselves and upload it onto a form or publish it on a platform, we intentionally and knowingly leave a digital footprint behind. It’s the deal we are willing to make to get access to the vast body of information and services that the internet offers us.
More troubling though is the trail of footprints we unintentionally leave behind. Most of us aren’t aware that unless we have taken extreme measures to prevent it, we still reveal loads of personal information about ourselves as we travel online.
It’s enough to get spooked, I know.
This week my 14-year-old son showed me how my phone—through numerous apps—has been tracking my every move for years! And I had no idea. The apps have access to this information. I had unwillingly, by hastily agreeing to their terms and conditions, given these apps my permission.
Check out this video that shows how my phone was tracking me:
If you’ve got an Android phone, don’t get all smug: you, too, are being…umm…observed. And these “observations” are available to all of the companies that have apps that you’ve downloaded onto your phone and, possibly unknowingly, granted permission to view your every move.
Of course, it’s not just your phone collecting data (aka spying).
Social media sites collect information on what you post, who your friends are, what you buy, how you lean politically and what you read. They then sell this information to advertisers.
Many people think using the Internet is free. But it isn’t. If you’re not paying for a product in the form of a user subscription, then it’s likely that the product is you.
Facebook Audience Insights
A tool called Facebook Audience Insights allows advertisers to learn more about the 2.8 billion Facebook users. In fact, Facebook collects so much information about its users that advertisers can sort their research by a variety of metrics. By the way, this tool is available for anyone to use, so you too can check it out right now. You can sort Facebook users by their relationship status, age, job title, multicultural affinity, the ages of their children, their politics, and life events.
Let’s suppose I sell high-end tuxedos and wedding gowns in the US. I can do a search with Facebook Audience Insights to find out more about the 4M Facebook users who have indicated that they are currently engaged to be married. I can research everything from average income of this demographic, to most common jobs, to what their favorite stores are, and which Facebook pages people in this group like.
This image shows the top 10 pages that receive likes from engaged Facebook users in the US. Knowing this, I might want to place an ad on the page of Verragio Rings and Wedding Bands and on its website.
While you will only see the aggregated information with this tool, Facebook is able to provide the data by collecting this information from each individual user. Facebook collects the information from the explicit and implicit digital footprints you leave behind on the platform.
Making things even scarier is the fact that Facebook will sell your digital footprint to people who want to advertise both on Facebook and on other platforms. And it won’t necessarily be aggregated. In a worst case scenario, one of the third parties that bought digital footprints of Facebook users left 500 million records exposed to hackers and thieves.
The Risks Associated with Your Digital Footprint
Now that we’re clear that you are the product that companies are buying and selling, it’s time to consider several problems:
First, you may just not like random strangers knowing where you go, who you talk to, how you feel, and what you do on a daily basis. So there’s that.
But second, the more footprints you leave behind—both implicit and explicit—the greater risk that your information will be exploited. It may be exploited by marketers, who operate legally, but it also may be traded illegally by fraudsters and criminals.
Who Can See Your Digital Footprint?
There are companies such as Acxiom, Experian, and Infogroup that are data aggregators. These companies piece together all the breadcrumbs you leave around the internet to build a portrait of you that can be bought and sold to someone who is ready to exploit it.
Then there are data mining companies such as Cambridge Analytica, infamous for its role in the 2016 presidential election. Cambridge Analytica bought and sold data from Facebook and other data aggregators, and then mined and analyzed this data to help Donald Trump’s campaign focus on the ideal voter most likely to swing his way.
It is notable that of the 87 million Facebook users whose data was harvested by Cambridge Analytica, only 30,000 had knowingly left a digital footprint by answering personality questions on a Facebook survey. The other users were friends of the original survey takers, whose data was also pulled.
3 Steps to Reduce Your Digital Footprint
Assuming you don’t want to go live on a mountaintop and disconnect forever, you’d be wise to take steps to reduce your digital footprint. And while there are no quick fixes, here are three recommendations to help you sleep easier at night:
1. Use a unique password for every login
I’m as guilty as the next person of using the most obvious passwords like the name of a pet. Maybe I’ve answered “What’s your favorite dog?” on a security question on one website, and then I posted a photo of my furry friend on Instagram with a caption of my dog’s name. A criminal doesn’t need to be too wily to put the information together and quickly hack into my bank account.
So that freaks me out!
I’m also guilty of other password no-no’s like using the same password for multiple accounts, and even sharing my password with family and friends.
I’m determined to change my ways.
Now I’ve got a password manager called 1Password. It generates a unique and strong password for each account and stores it for me. Let’s say I just opened an account with a company called Mailchimp. I can use 1Password to generate a strong and unique code like this.
When I log into Mailchimp, I can easily copy the code and paste it into the login field in Mailchimp. Using a crazy long and nonsensical password like this – and a different one for each account – definitely makes me feel more secure.
The one word of caution is that you have to create a “Master Password” that allows you access to all of your other passwords. Make sure it’s a good one! And make sure you keep a record of it somewhere, like printed out and beneath your mattress.
2. Prevent advertisers from taking your search history.
Once I made the mistake of doing a Google search on “Common remedies for indigestion.”
A week later, I was sharing my screen with colleagues at work and an ad asking “Do you have bad gas?” pops up.
I was mortified.
Worse, I began being stalked by advertisers of digestive aids. What was happening? How could I make it stop?
As it turned out, cookies were to blame.
Not the type of cookies I buy from Girl Scouts each spring, but the type of cookies that are digital files. Like Girl Scouts during cookie season, online cookies will also hunt you down wherever you go.
Online cookies are stored on your web browser. Your web browser is the tool that you use to surf the web. Safari and Chrome are examples of browsers.
In any case, now that I think about it, online cookies are a lot worse than Girl Scouts. They are files of information about what you do on every website – whether you put something into an online shopping cart but fail to complete the purchase – or whether you spend one minute or six minutes on a particular web page. Or whether you simply ate too much guacamole and went searching online for a bit of relief.
The website you visit sends this information to your browser and can add a tag to it. This tag lets the company you visited track your every online move.
But before we blame cookies for everything, it must be said, that like a good Thin Mint, we can’t really live entirely without them. Cookies are necessary for a site to keep your shopping cart full of the items that you loaded the next time you return to the site.
Cookies also allow sites that you frequent to remember your password, so you don’t need to re-enter it every time. But you can reduce the amount of information that cookies collect on you. To get step-by-step instructions on how to do this, do a search on “How can I reduce cookies on [insert the name of your browser].”
Alternatively, you can give up common browsers such as Chrome and Safari, and instead use a browser like DuckDuckGo. This company says that its mission is to secure your privacy online. In fact, their site says:
“At DuckDuckGo, we don’t think the Internet should feel so creepy and getting the privacy you deserve online should be as simple as closing the blinds.”
Sounds good, right? This browser’s default setting is ‘no cookies.’
3. Disable location tracking for select apps
Now that my son showed me how the apps on my phone track my every move, I’m definitely going to be more careful about the settings when I download a new app. Here is how you can view the data that your apps are collecting about you. (That is, as long as you enabled location-sharing when you downloaded the apps, which you likely did.)
Settings–>Privacy–>Location Services–>Scroll to the bottom to System Services–>Significant Locations–>Enter the 4-digit PIN for your phone–>Click on any one of the places you’ve been that are listed under “History”–> Prepare to be amazed (or horrified).
Settings–>Click the Network tab on the left–>At the bottom it may say “Looking for Something Else?” and lists a few other options, including Location. Click Location–>Scroll down to click Google Location History–>Select your Gmail accounts from the list and click Manage Activity–>And here is the true answer to the question, “Where have you been lately?”
How to Disable Location Sharing for an App
Now that you might have be sufficiently freaked out, you may want to disable location tracking. But take a deep breath. You probably don’t want to turn off all location tracking.
As for me, I like to know that I can make an emergency call from my phone and someone can track me down. Also, I use Google Maps. Most importantly, I can go on my Starbucks app and order a caramel macchiato. The app will know which Starbucks is closest to me and have my drink ready and waiting in just a few minutes.
In any case, I’m going to very carefully select which apps I allow to track me. For example, the camera that came with my iPhone tracks my location, and while it’s cool that iPhotos will automatically organize my photos by the place where I took them, I don’t think that’s necessary for my life.
To disable location sharing for an app, follow these instructions:
On an iPhone
Go to Settings–>Privacy-->Location Services
Now either toggle off the Location Services at the top of the screen to disable location tracking on all apps. But remember, some functions like emergency services and Google Maps, use this.
Better yet, scroll down to see a list of your apps. Then click on each individual app to reset the location permissions for each individual app.
On an Android
Tools–>Settings–>Click the Network tab on the left–>At the bottom it may say “Looking for Something Else?” and lists a few other options, including Location. Click Location.
Now you have a choice: Either Toggle Off at the top of the screen to turn off location permission for all apps OR select App-Level Permissions–>Toggle On or Off for each app
When It Comes to Your Digital Footprint, Tread Lightly
Suffice it to say, everything’s fine until it’s not.
And even if you personally haven’t been ripped off by a hacker, how do you feel knowing that your online information—everywhere you’ve ever been, everything you’ve ever bought—is in the files of advertisers worldwide?
It’s enough to give any sane person a serious case of the heebie-jeebies.
My mother is fond of saying, “Everything in moderation.” And, for me at least, that applies here. While I probably won’t give up using Google Chrome to go solely with DuckDuckGo as my browser, I’m glad I know that option is there.
And now I’m much more aware of the explicit and implicit digital footprints that I leave as I step through my life online.