How to Protect Your Digital Footprint

Most people take active steps to protect themselves and their privacy in the physical world.  Your windows probably have blinds or curtains – especially in the bathroom and bedroom – and few would leave their money or credit cards lying around unattended or give their Social Security number or banking information to random strangers. 

Yet as soon as they go online, most people cheerfully violate their own common sense rules about privacy and security.  In doing so, they create a “digital footprint” that’s deeply revealing.

Digital Footprint Facts

Remember the story of Hansel and Gretel leaving a trail of breadcrumbs so they could find their way out of the forest?  Well, everything you do digitally leaves a similar record, from the apps you use to the sites you visit, to your social media activity.  Some of your visits are anonymous, but a lot of your activity is directly linked to you by name. 

Similarly, a portion of your real-world life is reflected in your digital existence.  Things like property and arrest records are stored in public databases in many jurisdictions.  Listed phone numbers appear as well if you still have a landline, and those usually have a physical address attached. 

Your digital footprint, then, is the combined total of the information about you that can be found online.  When the anonymized and identifiable portions are combined, they can reveal more about you than you might wish. 

“Does It Really Matter ‒ I Have Nothing to Hide”

People are often surprisingly blasé about their dwindling privacy.  “I have nothing to hide,” is their reasoning, “so it doesn’t really matter what’s online about me.”  In an ideal world, that might – debatably – be true, but sadly, the world we live in is far from ideal. 

Instead, our lives are overflowing with scammers and fraudsters who are endlessly creative in finding ways to misappropriate your information and use it to their advantage.  For example, scammers can easily transfer home titles into their names and sell or rent your properties without your knowledge. 

If your social-media profiles are public, scammers can easily obtain the kind of information – birthdays, mother’s maiden name, pets’ names – that are often used for passwords or to authenticate accounts.  Once you’ve given them a foot in the door, scammers often can find ways to impersonate you online, use your accounts to “catfish” your friends and family or hit them up for money with a Venmo scam.

The bottom line?  Not paying attention to your digital footprint and your online security is a really bad idea. 

Learning What Private Companies Know About You

Aside from publicly available information, you should probably take a look at the proprietary information companies compile about you.  Some of this is fairly obvious:  You expect companies like Google and Facebook to track how you use their products, though the sheer volume of what they know might shock you.  

It’s instructive to actually click on sites’ Cookie Policy and Privacy Policy statements and read them.  Most people just click “Accept” – the banners are actually designed to encourage you to do just that – but in those policy statements, you’ll see how your data is used and who gets to use it.  It’s eye-opening, especially for companies who are compelled to divulge detailed information by new privacy-centric laws like the California Consumer Privacy Act or the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation

Typically, these companies provide some mechanism to either retrieve your personal information or opt out of their database, but don’t expect it to be a quick or easy process. 

Checking Your Digital Footprint With Spokeo

If you’re ready to get a grip on your digital footprint, start with Spokeo’s search tools.  Spokeo aggregates legitimate, legally obtained information from a wide range of public sources, so it’s as good a single-source reality check as you could ask for. 

Start by using the people-search tool to look up your name.  Try it with and without your middle name or initial and use alternative spellings as well.  Then, look up your phone number, your current and former addresses, and even your email addresses.  A lot of the information you find will belong to others with similar names, but a surprisingly large quantity will apply to you. 

Digging through the results will give you a better feel for your digital footprint. 

How to Protect Your Digital Footprint

Taking a long, hard look at your own online activity is always the first step toward taking control of your digital presence online.  You don’t necessarily have to make your profiles private, for example, but flagging individual posts as “private” can make them less accessible.  You also might want to create separate profiles for your “public” self – the one employers or potential clients can find – and your “private” self, the one that’s connected only to people you actually know. 

You also can request to be removed from many databases, exercise tighter control over which apps have what kinds of permissions on your phone, or take advantage of a robust identity protection tool to warn you when signs appear that your personal information is in the hands of scammers. 

The Bottom Line on Your Digital Footprint

The entire digital economy runs on data in the same way your car (probably) runs on gasoline.  That means it ultimately runs on trust:  People like you trust the companies that are collecting and using your data to use it ethically and to provide you with useful and entertaining products and services in exchange. 

That trust can only be built on a basis of transparency and accountability, and that’s what Spokeo is all about.  By helping you see what information is out there about you and giving you some measure of control over it, we play a crucial role in helping restore balance – and trust – between you and the companies you deal with online.