Understanding and Protecting Your Digital Footprint

For decades, we’ve been taught to worry about the surveillance state. There’s certainly enough cause for concern that the word “Orwellian” will never go out of fashion. But what’s tended to escape our attention is that surveillance takes many forms, that it’s private corporations, criminals, and others that are just as likely to follow our footsteps, and that their best interests are often at cross-purposes with ours. As private investigators specializing in electronic surveillance and debugging countermeasures, Barefoot Professional Investigations understands what’s at stake better than most. We’d like to help you better understand your digital footprint, and in so doing, better protect yourself, your family, and your business.


What Is Your Digital Footprint?

Each step we take online leaves traces. Just like the physical world, sometimes we see those traces, and other times we don’t. We’re conscious of entering login details or payment information, blogging, Tweeting, or posting on a discussion board. However, we’re also leaving behind less-obvious information — IP addresses, location data, buying habits, and even conversations we thought were private — which also contributes to that footprint. 


Types of Digital Footprints

Many sources tend to frame the discussion in terms of positive and negative digital footprints. Certainly, if you’re a job hunter or someone else whose activities could come under outside scrutiny, that’s a useful thing to pay attention to. 

But for our purposes — where security matters as much as or more than perception — it’s perhaps more useful to look at it in terms of active and passive digital footprints. An active digital footprint consists of the traces left by conscious activity. Allowing cookies on your browser, posting on social media, signing up for mailing lists, or allowing push notifications are all examples of active digital footprints. Passive digital footprints, on the other hand, are those that are left without our knowledge or consent — activities that sometimes follow close on the heels of active participation. Social media sites aggregate our likes and interactions to serve ads, websites may use geolocation data or cookies without our knowledge, and your purchasing or browsing habits have an unsettling tendency to follow you around the web.


Securing Your Digital Footprint

By now, you’re probably wondering: how can you protect yourself and minimize your digital footprint? It’s easier than you think.


Manage Your Passwords

Create strong passwords, avoiding words, names, and dates, and keeping each password unique for each site you use. Combine numbers, letters, and special characters in ways that you can remember but that a hacker’s tools would have difficulty “guessing” or landing on by chance. We find password managers, which store encrypted passwords, to be helpful in this regard.


Keep Software Up to Date

It’s easier than you think to exploit the weaknesses in software. Your digital footprint can be exposed even by programs that aren’t directly tied to your financials and other information, since a skilled hacker can alter code to enable a program or application to monitor your activity. Make sure any software you use, even if it’s not something you use often, is kept up to date — and that goes double for your antivirus.


Understand What You’re Using

Nobody reads the terms and conditions that come with everything from apps to mailing lists and websites. They should, because if they did, they’d better understand — and probably be a little shocked by — how much of their digital lives they’re signing away. 


Know — and Use — Your Privacy Settings

Once you’ve signed up for something, your first stop should be your account and privacy settings. This helps to keep your private information (and private life) away from prying eyes, and is a good hedge against social engineering. Err on the side of under-share.


Question Your Connections

We’re connected in more ways, to more people and things, than we often realize. Be conscious of those connections, whether it’s a friend request, an online offer, or an IoT-enabled gadget. Being selective helps; a footprint that’s too big or too indiscriminate increases your exposure, and with it, the chances of you and your data being compromised or misused.


Remove Your Traces

There are ways to leave fewer traces behind. A browser like Duck Duck Go that anonymizes search activity can help. So, too, can deleting applications, profiles, and accounts that are no longer in use; this doesn’t just help your digital footprint, it helps to protect any information that would otherwise have been tied to the profile if that provider is hacked or otherwise compromised. Some users also find virtual private networks (VPNs) useful. You can’t remove or mitigate every last trace, but it’s possible and advisable to lessen your exposure.


Get Help

News stories in recent years have left all of us a bit more wary about how we use our devices, and the implications of our online activity. You might even be following each of the steps above diligently — and things can still go wrong. If that happens, the computer debugging services of a Charlotte private investigator like Barefoot Professional Investigations can be a significant help.