what is a digital footprint

What you do online isn’t private. Everything you do leaves behind some kind of mark. This trail is often referred to as a digital footprint, and it’s used to track you in many different ways. In this article, we go over what a digital footprint is, how you can avoid leaving one, and even show you how you can make it into something that can benefit you.

Defining your digital footprint

A digital footprint is a trail of data formed by somebody’s online activity. Surfing the web is like walking in sand: Wherever you step, you leave behind a visible mark of your presence. When you browse a site, when you log into an account, or click on a link, your actions are recorded in some way. 

All these bits of data together form your digital footprint, creating a map of where you’ve been and what you’ve done online. When put together, data brokers(new window) can use your digital footprint to create a profile of you that can predict who you are, what you like, and what you may be interested in seeing pop up on your feed in the future.

Data gathering: active vs. passive digital footprint

Roughly speaking, there are two kinds of data which can be gathered for your digital footprint.

Your active footprint is made up of the things you do online, such as signing into accounts, signing up for newsletters, making purchases, and anything else that requires your actively clicking or typing.

Your passive footprint is a lot more subtle. It’s usually gathered while you’re browsing by trackers like cookies or methods like browser fingerprinting. It’s a hidden type of data gathering that could even be recording how long you looked at an ad — something Facebook does.

All these data points could be linked to something that directly identifies you, like an online account you created (with Facebook or another social media platform), your IP address(new window), and, probably the most common, your email address. With all this information in a neat little package, it goes to the next step.

How are digital footprints used?

With all this data, marketers can then turn your digital footprint into something a lot more lucrative: namely a profile of who you are. Big Tech and other attention merchants have developed technologies that, based on the data from your digital footprint, can give a good assessment of who you are, what you like, and, more importantly, predict what you’ll do next.

A profile is worth money: According to our research, the average US resident is worth about $600 per year to Google and Facebook, the two biggest companies in this space and each worth billions of dollars. While at first glance it may seem like your digital footprint is just tidbits, taken altogether and treated with the black magic of marketing math, it becomes a fortune.

Can you check your digital footprint?

Sadly, you can’t actually check your digital footprint yourself, or even make money off it — though some have tried(new window). Ironically, your data isn’t yours, it has been taken by Big Tech and made their product, placing it out of your reach. Best you can do is hope privacy laws like the EU’s GDPR will help protect you, but legislation often lags behind the latest data-gathering tools Big Tech has developed.

How to protect your digital footprint

The problem with your digital footprint is that it’s very hard to stop leaving a trail. The way the web is set up, sites have to know where you’re coming from and cookies are ubiquitous. What you can do, though, is remove the connection between you and your digital footprint. Your data is still harvested, sure, but at least it can’t be identified as yours any more.

There are two ways you can do this: First, you can hide your IP address using a virtual private network(new window) (VPN). This is a service that reroutes your traffic through a server under its control, letting you assume the IP address of that server instead of your own. As your IP address is a big part of how you can be identified online, changing it in this way makes it harder for data brokers to link information to you.

Turning your digital footprint into something you control

Of course, hiding your presence is only part of the solution. After all, you can’t hide everything you do online, and some things you may want to have known, like posting things on social media or a forum message. At Proton, we’ve created a way for you to empower yourself by giving you total control of your data on our platform.

Part of our strategy involves Proton VPN(new window), our state-of-the-art VPN service, to cover your tracks as described. However, that only hides your IP address and allows data brokers to still identify you in other ways, most notably through email, which is usually required to create any online account.

This is where Proton Pass, our password manager, comes in. Like most password managers, it can help store your passwords and autofill them as you browse. It’s a huge upgrade to the quality of your online life, as well as protecting you from nasty cyberattacks like credential stuffing.

What sets Proton Pass apart, however, is that it can also help hide your email address through hide-my-email aliases. These are randomly generated email addresses you can use when creating online accounts, so you can’t be identified through your real email address. You’ll still receive all your mail, but the service won’t know who you are.

Between our VPN and Proton Pass, you have everything you need to make your digital footprint something you have control over, a digital identity you determine, rather than one that is dictated by marketers. If that kind of control is something you want more of, create a free Proton account today.

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