You’re being watched!!! 🧛
I don’t want to scare you, but yes, you’re being watched. Unless you’re reading this on a sheet of paper, your mobile phone is off, and you’re not even close to any form of computing device (are you on a desert island?), your current activity –whatever it is– is leaving traces and some people and technology could figure out what you are doing.
But wait, don’t turn off everything around you yet. First, let me tell you about your digital footprint, then you’ll be free to decide what to do.
No more secrets
George Orwell’s “1984” novel depicts a world in which some entity, called Big Brother, watches everyone’s actions, everywhere, all the time. Today, that Big Brother Orwell imagined turned into advertisers, employers, and online sellers –they are all watching closely everything we do online. They’re interested in what we search, where we go, what we post in social networks, what we buy online, even what we read, watch, or what music we hear.
All that is our digital footprint. It can tell a lot (a LOT) of who we are. It can tell if we are eligible for a particular job if we are potential buyers of some goods or services if we could be interested in going somewhere for vacation. There are ways to avoid leaving these traces as we move around in the digital world. But there are traces that we may want to leave intentionally.
Let’s start by learning how we leave those traces.
Digital cookies are the oldest method websites use to learn about their visitors.
They are small files browsers store on your computer after your first visit to a website, to track your activity on that site. Cookies can store user preferences and settings to let the website customize itself to provide an optimal experience, tailored specially for each user or set of users.
They can also store credentials to make it easy for you to log in to a previously visited site.
There are different types of cookies.
One type, called session cookies, only live while you stay within a website. Once you leave that website, the cookie automatically disappears. Other cookies are called persistent cookies. These cookies remain for a while in your hard disk (or whatever storage device you use) and are used for authentication –keeping track of logged-in users and remembering the password, so the user doesn’t have to– or for tracking user activity.
There is a particular type of persistent cookie called third-party cookies. They are called this way because they are generated by other websites than the one you are visiting. Usually, third-party cookies are related to ads and are used by advertisers to track a user’s activity within all the sites that contain their ads. These cookies do more than just store users’ preferences, logins, and passwords. They collect a lot of information and can inform an advertiser what content you are reading if you’re looking for a particular product in an online store, your location (through your IP address), your device configuration, how much time you spent in a specific website, your tweets, your Facebook posts, and much more.
Your search presence
Cookies are not the only thing you should consider if you’re concerned with your digital footprint. There’s also your search presence –the information about you that appears in Google’s (or other search engines) search results.
Besides searching for your name on Google and see what shows up, you need to investigate yourself online. It is not difficult; you just need to follow these steps:
- Make sure you are logged out of all your social networks and email accounts.
- Clear your browser history and the cookies. On the privacy tab of your browser configuration window, you will find a button or link to do that.
- Write down a list of all the usernames you could remember ever used.
- Using a privacy-protecting search engine, such as DuckDuckGo, search for your name followed by each of your usernames –one search for each username. Do the same with all your email addresses.
- Get into different social networks (using new usernames, if you need to login) and search for your name and usernames.
- Do reverse lookups of your phone numbers.
- Do a reverse image search with all your profile pictures. If you use Google’s reverse image search engine, you’ll get similar images and the sites that include them. TinEye is another option to do a reverse image search.
How to erase your footprints
After investigating yourself, you may find that your name, your pictures, or some other piece of your personal data is publicly posted on a site on which you don’t want to appear, or they appear in search results of topics you don’t want to be associated with.
One thing you need to know about your digital footprint is that it is permanent. It won’t go away unless you do something. If you want to get rid of all of it, you can hire a “cleaning service”: a specialized organization that finds and clears all information about you that could be published on the internet. This option could be costly.
In case your digital footprint is not yet scattered all around, you just need to take precautions to keep it that way. A simple measure is to do all your online activities through a VPN (a virtual private network). A VPN is like a tunnel that connects two locations and lets the data flow between them in an encrypted manner so that no one would be able to snoop in and see or read what is traveling through the tunnel.
Using a VPN, you can be sure you are browsing websites anonymously.
The VPN is not only for computers. A smartphone can also use a VPN when they are connected via Wi-Fi. With the VPN, the websites you browse with your phone will not be able to find out your real IP address and determine your physical location. You can even choose a virtual location, so the websites you visit will not know where you really are.
There is plenty of VPN you can use.
Browser extensions and search engine deletion
There are browser extensions that you could install to prevent websites from collecting your data. One of these features is called Do Not Track, and it is available for Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer. It has some drawbacks; for instance, the Share buttons may disappear from some websites.
There is also something called DeleteMe, a removal service that erases personal information that may have been collected by data brokers –companies that either collect or buy personal information online, then aggregate it with data from offline sources, and sell complete personal-info databases.
To use the service, you submit your personal information for removal. Then, DeleteMe experts find and remove that personal information from leading broker sites, also removing it from Google search results.
And, another one to clean up your online presence, try Deseat.me, a tool that gives you a list of all the services you have created an account for, then lets you choose which ones to keep and which ones to delete, and sends removal requests to the services you will not use anymore.
Another browser extension that could help you go unnoticed while you’re online is Ghostery.
Ghostery blocks third-party tracking scripts and updates a script library to facilitate future blocking. Anytime a tracker is blocked, all the cookies that tracker could have placed will not be accessible to anyone but the user. Therefore, they will not be read when called upon.
Beneficial footprints and how to make them look better
The same way you put effort into looking good on the physical world, you should do in the digital world. In the latter case, looking good means to be diverse, creative, friendly, and social. It is not bad to be active on many different social media platforms. Besides tweeting and posting on Facebook, you could write your own blog, keep your own video channel, contribute to a wiki, between others.
All the mentioned options act as windows where you can show the best of you. Try to showcase your creativity. Consider showing projects you are proud of. Everything you publicly show will function as a digital resume, in case you are looking for a job.
Choose a social media platform that adjusts to your personality, and look for groups that share your interests. For example, Linkedin is the ideal place to make business contacts, while Instagram is the preferred platform for those who want to be followed by many, by posting the coolest images.
Pay attention to the way you communicate on social media because it will establish your online reputation. Make an effort to write clear messages –use what you’ve learned at school. Avoid offensive language and, if necessary, use correcting tools to write without grammar or spelling errors.
Don’t overact because artificial words and actions are easily spotted. Just be yourself. Genuineness is of good quality, so try to use social media to expose your true personality. Also, it’s better to be friendly and social, writing constructive comments on public blogs or postings.
Time will not clean your digital footprint
Don’t underestimate the power of your digital footprint. Like a tattoo, It is there to stay, and if you don’t like it, it will cost you to get rid of it. But if you put enough effort to show the best of you, it can help you achieve otherwise best goals, whether it is to get your dream job or find your real soulmate.