Data Privacy:  How big is your digital footprint?

Imagine a fresh blanket of snow or tacky plane of sand in front of you.  Envision slowly stepping onto this surface and take note of the footprint left behind.  Assessing the size and shape of the imprint is easy to do because we are aware of the dimensions of our foot.  However, there is another type of footprint we may not be accustomed to measuring.  Our digital footprint is less tangible than the one left behind us as we walk over an impressionable surface, nevertheless it still exists.  We are all members of a digital society; consequently, our online activities, interactions, and behaviors cast a mold which becomes unique to our online presence.  This virtual impression is known as our digital footprint. 

Why is it so important to measure this?  The metadata collected through your usage of a digital environment can immensely impact aspects of your daily life such as your privacy, security, and digital reputation (1).  Your digital content can be accessed for numerous reasons, some more harmful than others.  For example, your digital footprint can keep you from getting a job, being admitted into college or a prestigious association, or it can even prevent you from obtaining a loan (1). Even more threatening is how it can increase your probability of exploitation by cyber-criminals.  A profile is generated when fragments of your digital content get pieced together.  This profile can be used for social engineering attacks and identity theft (1). 

January 28th is recognized as Data Privacy Day.  Follow these best practices to minimize your digital footprint and protect your privacy:

  • Map your footprint.  Make a list of your personal accounts including social networking sites and other general websites (such as Amazon, eBay, Gmail, etc) (2).  Make mental note of all the aliases and user names you have created and use multiple search engines to conduct Internet searches of your name and other personal details (2).  Your results will provide you with a measurement of your digital footprint.     
  • Manage your social networking privacy options and post with caution.  Social networking sites have various levels of privacy settings which enable you to restrict access to the personal information you share and to whom you share it with (2).  Typically, the default is set to public so you will need to manually restrict your settings and then confirm whether this automatically updated older posts.  If not, you will want to manage these posts accordingly.  Additionally, always use discretion when posting comments, photos, status updates, and even likes to other pages.  Liking a general page or participating in online social games often gives outsiders access to your personal social networking information including those members in your friends list.  Learn more…     
  • Use prudence when interacting online through public forums.  Be thoughtful of how your comments can be interpreted when you interact with others through message boards, blogs, and/or news outlets (1).  Create impersonal aliases instead of using personal identifiers in your user names.    
  • Manage your cookies and research your options for browsers.  Cookies track your browsing history and target you for specific ads related to your search interests (3).  Internet browsers have various settings to manage cookies; the best option is to disable them all together or at least delete them as you close your browser sessions.  Some Internet browsers allow you to enable a private browsing session which prevents the browser from storing any information about the websites you have visited during the session (3).   Also, when considering your browser options, you should review policies on how long your search history is cached.  Even though you may have deleted searches from your personal device’s history, your Internet browser provider may cache this information for 30 days or longer (2). 
  • Consider paying with pre-paid cards or cash.   Pre-paid cards and cash options make it difficult to track your purchases or identity (3). 
  • Seek assistance when you cannot personally delete data associated with yourself.  Usually an email request to the site owner will suffice to get the data deleted (2).  Be vigilant and take this extra step when you need to. 



1.  Smith, T.  (2012).  Managing your digital footprint:  think before you post.  Retrieved from,

2.  Hayter, A.  (2012).  Reducing your digital footprint.  Retrieved from,

3.  Singer, N.  (2013).  Ways to make your online tracks harder to follow.  Retrieved from,

4.  National Cyber Security Alliance.  (2014).  Respecting privacy, safeguarding data, enabling trust.  Retrieved from,

Last updated: January 20, 2017