How to manage your digital footprint and own your privacy

Woman smiling while on her laptop

Your digital footprint is the trail of data you leave behind as you interact with the internet. This includes everything from your search history and your social media posts to the websites you visit. Your digital footprint seems harmless, but criminals can use it to steal your identity and access your finances.

Below are some tips for managing your digital footprint:

Start by asking, “Why?”

For all data requests from digital services, first ask “Why?” Why are they asking for this data? Think about the relevancy of the request in relation to the service to rendered. For example, does that email newsletter provider really need to know what state you live in?

Consider the tradeoff that you’re making in exchange for losing a little of your privacy. Giving access to your location so that your GPS works on a business trip might be worth it to you. But, you might want to think twice about giving location data to a store loyalty program on your phone.

Be careful while browsing the internet

Use the private browsing settings of your internet browsers. Usually, you can right-click on the computer program’s icon and select “New private/incognito window.” This keeps browsers from assigning specific search and internet usage histories to you. Limit what you do on public WiFi, and avoid logging in to key accounts like email and financial services. Consider using a VPN if you need a secure connection.

When it comes to social media, assume everything could be public—even if you’re vigilant about your privacy settings. Be cautious about posting too many personal details, like travel plans or possible answers to security questions.

Search yourself

Searching your name on major search engines will give you a snapshot of your online presence. It can be eye-opening to see what personal information is publicly available.

You can also enter your email address into an online tool like Have I Been PWNED. This site will tell you if your email address is involved in any major data breaches. If it has, be sure you’re no longer using the passwords associated with those accounts at the time of the breaches.

Use a password manager to take inventory

Password managers allow you to view your online accounts in one place—making you realize how large your footprint actually is. Having fewer online accounts means there’s less to protect.

Regularly review your accounts and delete any that are unnecessary. If a vendor doesn’t let you delete your account, change your details to something random. It’s best to not trust them with your business in the future.

You should also use strong, complex passwords. You don’t need to constantly change your passwords, but remember to change them if your information is part of a data breach.

Manage new accounts

Countless online vendors force users to create accounts before using their service—even for one-time purchases or subscriptions. These accounts feel trivial, but they’re useful to spam marketers, mailing lists, and cybercriminals.

Besides to deleting old accounts you no longer use, try to resist the urge to create new ones. Many vendors now provide a “checkout as a guest” option, which is the way to go if you think that your interaction with that site will be a one-time occurrence.

Control account privacy and settings

Get to know your account privacy settings. The National Cybersecurity Alliance has a tool that compiles privacy setting information for most major digital providers. These settings will allow you make your social posts as private as possible or limit what data these services collect about you.

You can also see what information these services have collected on you. In the case of Google, anything you’ve ever done while logged in with a Google or Gmail account is logged.

If this level of data collection bugs you, these services do allow you to put the torch to all of it if you choose. Be careful, though, as these actions are usually permanent and have consequences. For example, deleting your entire email history and account could make it more difficult to communicate with family and friends. Deleting search histories could make it more cumbersome to do future internet searches.

The same goes for big social media networks. Most major sites will give you the option to download your information before deleting so you can keep any details you need on your computer.

Be aware of phishing scams

Phishing scams are emails or text messages that appear to be from a legitimate source, like your bank or credit card company. These emails or text messages will often ask you to provide personal information. Don’t click on any links in these emails or text messages, and don’t give any personal information.

Completely erasing your digital footprints isn’t necessary to move safely through our uber-connected world. But a little knowledge and awareness about the impact your journey through the digital landscape can have on you will go a long way. With these tips, you’ll be on the path toward limiting your digital footprint and ensuring your financial information remains secure.

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