Digital footprint

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Digital footprint or digital shadow refers to one's unique set of traceable digital activities, actions, contributions and communications manifested on the Internet or on digital devices.[1][2][3][4] Digital footprints can be classified as either passive or active. The former is composed of a user's web-browsing activity and information stored as cookies, while the latter is often released deliberately by a user with the intent of sharing information on websites or social media.[5] While the term usually applies to an individual person, digital footprint can also refer to a business, organization or corporation.[6]

The use of a digital footprint has both positive and negative consequences. On one hand, it is the subject of many privacy issues.[7] For example, without an individual’s authorization, strangers are able to piece together information about that individual by simply using search engines, and corporations are also able to produce customized ads based on browsing history. On the other hand, others can reap the benefits by profiting off their digital footprint as social media influencers. Furthermore, employers use a candidate’s digital footprint for online vetting and assessing fit due to its reduced cost and accessibility—between two equal candidates, a candidate with a positive digital footprint may have an advantage. As technology usage becomes more widespread, even children are generating larger digital footprints with potential positive and negative consequences such as college admissions. Since it is hard to not have a digital footprint, it is in one’s best interest to create a positive one.  

Types of digital footprints[edit]

Passive digital footprints can be stored in many ways depending on the situation. In an online environment, a footprint may be stored in an online data base as a "hit". This footprint may track the user IP address, when it was created, and where they came from; with the footprint later being analyzed. In an offline environment, a footprint may be stored in files, which can be accessed by administrators to view the actions performed on the machine, without seeing who performed them.

Active digital footprints can also be stored in many ways depending on the situation. In an online environment, a footprint can be stored by a user being logged into a site when making a post or change, with the registered name being connected to the edit. In an offline environment a footprint may be stored in files, when the owner of the computer uses a keylogger, so logs can show the actions performed on the machine, and who performed them. One feature of keylogger monitors the clipboard for any changes. This may be problematic as the user may copy passwords or take screenshots of sensitive information which is then logged.

Privacy issues[edit]

Digital footprints are not a digital identity or passport, but the content and meta data collected impacts internet privacy, trust, security, digital reputation, and recommendation. As the digital world expands and integrates with more aspects of life, ownership and rights with regard to data become important. Digital footprints are controversial in that privacy and openness are in competition.[8] Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, said in 1999 Get Over It when referring to privacy on the Internet.[9] This later became a commonly used quote in relation to private data and what companies do with it.[10] Digital footprints are a privacy concern because they are a set of traceable actions, contributions, and ideas shared by users. It can be tracked and can allow internet users to learn about human actions. [11]

Internet footprints are used by interested parties for several reasons; including cyber-vetting,[12] where interviewers could research applicants based on their online activities. Internet footprints are also used by law enforcement agencies, to provide information that would be unavailable otherwise due to a lack of probable cause.[13] In addition, digital footprints are used by marketers in order to find what products a user is interested in, or to inspire ones' interest in a certain product based on similar interests.[14]

Social networking systems may record activities of individuals, with data becoming a life stream. Such usage of social media and roaming services allow digital tracing data to include individual interests, social groups, behaviors, and location. Such data is gathered from sensors within devices, and collected and analyzed without user awareness.[15] When many users choose to share personal information about themselves through social media platform, including places they visited, timelines and their connections, they are unaware of the privacy setting choices as well as the security consequences associated with them.[16] Many social media sites, like Facebook, collect an extensive amount of information that can be used to piece together a user's personality. Information gathered from social media, such as the number of friends a user has, can predict whether or not the user has an introvert or extrovert personality. Moreover, a survey of SNS users revealed that 87% identified where they work or their education level, 84% identified their full date of birth, 78% identified their location, and 23% listed their phone numbers. [16]

While digital footprint can be used to infer personal information, such as demographic traits, sexual orientation, race, religious and political views, personality, or intelligence[17] without individuals' knowledge, it also exposes individuals' private psychological spheres into the social sphere.[18] Lifelogging is an example of indiscriminate collection of information concerning an individuals life and behavior.[19] There are actions to take to make a digital footprint difficult to track.[20] Illustrating examples of the usage or interpretation of data trails is found at the example of Facebook-influenced creditworthiness ratings,[21] the judicial investigations around German social scientist Andrej Holm,[22] advertisement-junk mails by the American company OfficeMax[23] or the border incident of Canadian citizen Ellen Richardson.[24]

A strong online presence may be crucial in securing or maintaining a livelihood

Effects on workforce[edit]

As technology becomes ubiquitous, an increasing number of employers are also evaluating applicants by their digital footprint through their interaction on social media due to its reduced cost and easy accessibility[25] during the hiring process. By using such resources, employers are able to gain more insight on candidates beyond their well scripted interview responses and perfected resumes.[26] Candidates who display poor communication skills, use inappropriate language, or use drugs or alcohol are rated lower,[27] while conversely, a candidate with a professional or family-oriented social media presence receive higher ratings.[28] Employers also assess a candidate through their digital footprint to determine if a candidate is a good cultural fit[29] for their organization.[30] If a candidate upholds an organization’s values or shows existing passion for its mission, the candidate is more likely to integrate within the organization and could accomplish more than the average person. Despite the fact that these assessments are known not to be accurate predictors on performance or turnover rates,[31] employers still use digital footprints to evaluate their applicants. Job seekers thus prefer to create a social media presence that would be viewed positively from a professional point of view.

In some professions, maintaining a digital footprint is important. In the age of technology, people will search the internet for specific doctors and their reviews. In fact, half of the search results for a specific physician link to third-party rating websites.[32] This means that prospective patients may unknowingly choose their physicians based on their digital footprint in addition to online reviews. Furthermore, a generation relies on social media for livelihood as influencers by using their digital footprint. These influencers have dedicated fan bases that may be eager to follow recommendations. As a result, marketers pay influencers to promote their products among their followers, since this medium may yield better returns than traditional advertising.[33][34] Consequently, one’s career may be reliant on their digital footprint.

Effect on Children[edit]

Children's digital footprint may traverse the internet beyond the intended audiences

Generation Alpha will be the first generation that won’t exist without the technology era. As such, children’s digital footprint is becoming bigger than ever before and their consequences may be unclear. Due to parenting enthusiasm, an increasing amount of parents will create social media accounts for their children at a young age, sometimes even before they are born.[35] In their celebratory state, parents may post up to 13,000 photos of a child on social media before their teen years[36] of everyday life or birthday celebrations. Furthermore, these children are predicted to post 70,000 times online on their own by the age of 18.[36] The advent of posting on social media creates many opportunities to gather data from minors. Since the basic components of an identity contain name, birthdate, and address, these children are susceptible to identity theft.[37] While parents may assume that privacy settings may prevent children’s photos and data from being exposed, they also have to trust that their followers will not be compromised as well. Outsiders may take the images to pose as these children’s parents or post the content publicly.[38] For example, during the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, friends of friends leaked data to data miners. Due presence of children on social media, their privacy may be at risk.

Effects on teens[edit]

Not only do those entering the workforce need to consider the effect of their digital footprint, but also those who provides relevant information to teens.[39] Having a digital footprint may be dangerous for students, as affiliations such as college admissions staff and potential employers may decide to research into prospective students and employee's online profiles, leading to a large impact on the students' futures.[39] Teens will be set up for more success if they consider the kind of impact they are making along with how it can affect their future. Rather, someone who acts apathetic towards the impression they are making online will struggle if they one day choose to attend college or enter into the workforce.[40] Teens that plan on receiving a higher education will have their digital footprint reviewed and assessed as a part of the application process.[41] In addition, if the teens that have the intention of receiving a higher education are planning to do so with financial help and scholarships, then they need to consider that their digital footprint will be evaluated in the application process get scholarships.[42]

Build a positive digital footprint[edit]

The negative impact of a digital footprint could be daunting and make one flee from social media in attempt to not have a digital footprint at all, yet this can be beneficial if thought about carefully and not carelessly. Experts advise people not to delete their accounts in an attempt to go off the map;[43] instead, experts advise doing the following actions in order to create an appealing digital footprint:

  1. Research yourself: By doing this one can see what type of information follows them and is a part of their digital footprint.[44][40]
  2. Think before posting: This will allow for time to consider whether or not this is something that should be a part of one's digital footprint. Sources say that those who do not consider all possible implications of what they post on the internet may be negatively affected when looking for employment.[45]
  3. Highlight attractive traits and qualities: Using the Internet and social media outlets to highlight one's greatest attributes and qualities will allow the person to be seen in a positive light. Since it is already known that digital footprints are evaluated by potential job employers and universities in the application process then applicants should use that to their benefit and to make them look attractive.[41]

See also[edit]


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Further reading[edit]

  • Arya, Vikas; Sethi, Deepa; Paul, Justin (1 December 2019). "Does digital footprint act as a digital asset? – Enhancing brand experience through remarketing". International Journal of Information Management. 49: 142–156. doi:10.1016/j.ijinfomgt.2019.03.013.