Have you ever walked in the mud? What do you see when you look back at where you just stepped? You guessed it right: your footprints. They appear and stay because of your activity: walking in the mud.
In the same way, when you use the internet, you perform activities: you visit websites, send emails, post pictures or videos, like or share them, subscribe to a newsletter, shop online, leave a review of the product, etc. All the activities you do online leave a trail of information, known as a digital footprint or digital shadow, or electronic footprint. Whatever you do online can be linked back to you, as you leave information about you, your device, your location, etc.
The footprints you leave online can be in two ways: Active digital footprints, where you deliberately share information about yourself by posting on social networks or forums (picture, text, video), fill an online form, or accept website cookies on your browser.
However, some information about you or your device can be collected without your consent. Sometimes, websites collect information about your devices, how many times you visit the website and what parts of the websites you actually click and for how long you stay on the website, your IP address, etc. All this information is useful to people like advertisers who can target you with ads that match the profile built from your footprints.
But why do digital footprints matter?
Being present online can expose you to both harms and benefits. Some information you share can stay for a very long time, which, in the long run, can permanently stain you. Additionally, you might have little or no control over how the information you publicly share can be used against you. You have to keep in mind that your online reputation is as important as your offline reputation.
On the other hand, leaving a trail of information about you can result in opportunities that you could never have gotten if your information wasn’t available online. You can enroll in a course, buy a product, subscribe to a newsletter, post about your project, business, or product, etc. All these leave a trail of information that could be linked to you, expectedly, in a positive way.
Knowing how vulnerable your digital footprints can make you, it is important to take precautions on how much information you knowingly share online: phone number, age, address, etc. It is important to remove all the information that you feel might compromise you online. In the same way, avoid oversharing your information on social media.
“Think of the internet as making a presentation in front of millions of people. Don’t share details that will haunt you in decades,” says Gertrude Mligo, a Tanzanian Digital Rights Advocate.
In minimizing your information online, remember to delete your old accounts such as social media profiles you no longer use. Unsubscribe from a newsletter you no longer read, delete profiles you no longer use in websites. This will keep you safe from potential misuse of the information that is in their database.
“It is important to check every now and then what you posted in the past,” says Asha Abinallah, CEO of the Media Convergence from Tanzania.
While surfing, avoid unsafe websites: make sure to check for secure URLs before proceeding to visit a website. Check for HTTPS:// in the URL. The ’s’ stands for secure, meaning that the website has a security certificate.
Above all, it is very important to always think before you post or click a link. In many cases, we tend to leave a trail of information about us online from the deliberate actions we perform every day. Before you post, think beyond the immediate context around you. Think of it in the context of ten years to come: what will it speak of you? Remember, the internet never forgets.
In the same way, think before clicking that link or filling that form with your information. Think of who keeps that information and with what purpose, think of how that information can be used, and think if it is really necessary to leave that information online.
“If you are a person of interest or target or concerned about privacy and anonymity, keep your online presence hidden and always clean your digital footprints,” says James Laurent, a Tanzanian Digital Security Consultant.
You have control of how much you expose yourself online. The more proactive you are, the better, as it will help to avoid the necessary consequences of your information being misused. Stay on top of your digital footprints and stay safe online.
By Imani Henrick | Digital Rights and Inclusion Media Fellow | Paradigm Initiative