By Madeline Roberts
Online Learning Tips Contributor
Remember the review you left for a business on Yelp, the tweet you sent during a football game, or the photo someone tagged you in on Instagram? The Internet does. What you say, what you like, and who you follow are all pieces of your digital footprint — the trail of information that you leave online.
Your footprint is not restricted to accounts and profiles you own but includes every interaction you have on websites, social media, and within apps. This information is not meant to scare you but to make you think harder about what you share and what you type.
Have you ever performed a Google search of your own name? Chances are you’ll come across mentions that you’ve never seen, don’t want to see, or ones that reference someone else with the same name. You shouldn’t be surprised to see links to your social media accounts but you may not expect to find images associated with blogs you commented on five years ago. If all of this is available in a simple search result, think about what may be uncovered with a little more digging.
What’s Out There?
We live in a world of false anonymity and easy access to information. Even if you have your privacy settings configured the way you want, you’re still giving up personal data by agreeing to a website’s terms of service. A private Instagram account, for example, may prevent non-followers from seeing your images but if you share those posts to your public Twitter account then they are now visible to the world. Privacy on one site does not mean privacy on all.
What you share may have repercussions and there are hundreds of stories about social media fails that cost someone their job or relationship. The same behavioral cautions must be taken by online students. If you get into an argument with a classmate on a public forum, you may be in violation of your school’s code of conduct. If you ask for a course extension due to a medical emergency but pictures surface of you on vacation, your request may be denied.
I Have Nothing to Hide
This is a common response but before you say it, make sure you understand what information someone can find about you. When you share something online, you’re making a conscious decision to do so but personal information is also shared passively. This is why you see ads for websites you visited or products you searched — companies often place cookies on your system, allowing them to follow you around to other sites and target you with advertisements based on your search and behavior.
Active and passive sharing can also be taken out of context. Internet Society’s video on your digital footprint explains that using your credit card at a bar then using it to pay for parking may suggest that you drive under the influence, even if you drank soda all night.
What Am I Supposed to Do?
Understanding what makes up your digital footprint is just the first step in managing it. The next is to think about your own comfort level when it comes to sharing. This can be related to your personal brand and how you want to be perceived by others. For example, if you are a financial advisor and tweet about defaulting on your bills, your professional reputation will suffer the consequences.
You also want to think twice before granting permission to mobile apps. Enabling location services and allowing push notifications gives companies access to your personal data. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it warrants a second thought.
Software and privacy tools are also available to help you manage your digital footprint. Abine and BrandYourself are just two options that help you protect private information and give you the ability to control what people find about you in a Google search, respectively.
What you choose to do with this information is a personal decision but remember that it is not a private one.