Lifestyle & Culture

The dark side of digital footprints

It is almost impossible not to leave some kind of digital footprint these days. Leanne Elliott looks at the dangers and negative impacts of digital footprints.

Have you ever wondered why people worry about their digital footprint? I mean, apart from the obvious ‘don’t post about stuff you shouldn’t be doing’, does what you do online really matter? I am sure ASIO doesn’t care if you just bought a pair of jeans online… right? So, what is the big deal?

Most commonly, people worry about their digital footprint being used to bring their character into disrepute or that it will negatively impact on future opportunities, such as education and employment opportunities.

There are a whole range of things to consider when you turn on your device and start browsing, texting or posting because there is so much more to a digital footprint than just targeted marketing and ad campaigns.

Digital footprints are generated by your browsing history, answers to security questions, online forms or quizzes, health data, digital media, messaging, favourites, likes and other interactions, our devices let the system know where you have been or are, even the language you use can indicate our gender, where you grew up, your age, or sexual orientation.

This can then be collected, collated and used to paint a picture of who you are, what you do, where you go, who you know, your interests, your networks, your needs. Your data can reveal more about yourself than you might realise.

Like the time Target started sending a young girl ads targeting pregnancy because of her shopping habits. After her father went into Target and gave the manager a serving for encouraging his daughter to get pregnant. Days later the father had to apologise. Turns out, Target had developed a way to give customers a pregnancy prediction score based on the customers recent purchases, which is why Target began sending these targeted ads to the young teenager. In doing so it had inadvertently let the cat out of the bag, she was indeed pregnant.

It may not even be something you post; it could be an image your tagged in, a post made by a friend in one of your threads, or even worse, a post made by an antagonist. The thing about digital footprints is their permanence, unlike footprints in the sand they do not just wash away with the next high tide.

“A lot of people think about privacy but don’t really care until something happens to them personally.” Director Beth Givens, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse via NBC News

A quick internet search will reveal all kinds of disasters and nightmare stories linked to digital footprints. From bad tweets going viral and ending careers, identify theft, government surveillance, even horror stories about psychopathic stalkers tracking their victims by what they post online. But things like this only happen to other people… right?

Even if this is true, your data can still be collected, stored, sold on, and used without your permission; like when you walk down the streets of a smart city. Data is increasingly being used to make financial judgements, in criminal prosecutions, to assign citizens with threat scores, to build health scores, roll out social credit systems, to develop profiles on millions of users, and even to predict the future behaviour of people.

So, while the data being collected on you may not impact you right now, or may only impact you indirectly, it can and is being used to influence the wider community and to shape how you see the world. One of the best examples of this is how data has been used to influence elections and policy, as was the case with the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal.

“It’s like freedom. You don’t appreciate it until it’s gone. If you are a victim of identity theft, you experience a change of world view, you realize how little control you have over your world.” Director Beth Givens, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse via NBC News

Luckily, there is growing awareness surrounding the repercussions of digital footprints and how they can be used in ways not originally intended. And while you have little control over our data once it is out there, there are steps you can take to minimise our digital footprint and improve our data security.

  1. Regularly check the security settings on your accounts.
  2. Delete any unused accounts.
  3. Have a separate email which you use for any subscriptions, purchases or sign ups.
  4. Use incognito mode when browsing and clear your browsers cache/data regularly.
  5. Use a secure browser when searching online.
  6. Always use strong passwords on your accounts and do not use the same password for all of your accounts. It can be painful, but if you need to keep your account extra secure use MFA or other layers of security if they are available.
  7. Use a virtual private network (VPN). This increases security by masking your I.P. and encrypting data.
  8. Turn off the location on your digital devices.
  9. Search online to see what information you can find about yourself. There are useful tools and sites which you can use to profile yourself, such as HaveIBeenPwned, MyShadow.
  10. Learn about internet policy, digital privacy, your digital rights and the various law and policies which impact our interactions with the digital landscape.
  11. Be more conscious of what digital footprints you are leaving behind.

Like it or not, the digital world is here to stay and the data we generate will continue to be used in new, creative ways by governments and companies. And as with most human creations, our data will be used for good and for bad purposes. Data security methods will improve, but so will the methods used by those who exploit our data, and as our workplaces, societies and systems become increasingly digitised, the level of control and ability to manage our own data continues to be eroded away.

If this concerns you, why not take action and become involved with already established digital privacy groups, such as Digital Rights Watch, the Australian Privacy Foundation, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or Privacy International.

Original image by kiraschwarz via, edited by Leanne Elliott, Staff Writer.

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