What is a digital footprint and how can you protect it

A man wearing a yellow shirt looking at his digital footprint on his computer screen.

A digital footprint is your paper trail of online activity. Your digital footprint gets tracked every time you post or visit a website. But this information could get compromised in the event of a data breach. Learn more about your digital footprint and how cybersecurity tools like Norton 360 Deluxe can help strengthen your online privacy.

It’s not uncommon to use a search engine to see what information about you pops up. However, the data on these search engines is only a fraction of your digital footprint.

When you know the boundaries of your digital footprint and take steps to contain it, you can help protect your identity and reputation. Let’s jump right into what exactly a digital footprint is and the common types of digital footprints.

What is a digital footprint?

A digital footprint includes all traces of your online activity, including your comments on news articles, posts on social media, and records of your online purchases. This can also include the websites you frequent, any messages sent, and data you’ve added online.

Whenever you post something online, share content, or even when a website collects your information by installing cookies on your device, you create a digital trail or footprint.

This includes your IP address, login details, and other personal information. Information that others post about you also gets added to your data trail. It could show up when someone searches for your name online. Your online identity can influence different aspects of your life.

Types of digital footprints

Digital footprints can be classified into two broad categories—active and passive digital footprints—which depend on how your personally identifiable information is acquired.

Active and passive footprints can get tracked and observed in multiple ways and by multiple sources.

Graphic showing the common types of digital footprints.

Active digital footprints

Active digital footprints consist of the data you leave when you make deliberate choices on the internet. For instance, posts you make to your social media channels are a form of active footprints. When you log into a project management or similar site, changes you make that connect to your login name are also part of your active digital footprint.

Here are a few examples of active digital footprints:

  1. Posting on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and other social media platforms
  2. Filling out online forms, for example, when signing up to receive emails or texts
  3. Agreeing to install cookies on your devices when prompted by the browser

You have more control over your active digital footprint because you decide what to post, which forms to fill out, and whether to accept cookies on certain websites.

Passive digital footprints

Passive digital footprints are those you leave behind without intending to or, in some cases, without knowing it.

For instance, websites that collect information about how many times you’ve visited recently are adding to your digital footprint passively. That’s because you don’t choose to give them this data. They collect it when a device at your IP address connects with their website. This is a hidden process, and you may not realize it's even happening.

Here are three examples of passive digital footprints.

  1. Websites that install cookies in your device without disclosing them
  2. Apps and websites that use geolocation to pinpoint your exact location
  3. Social media news channels and advertisers that use your likes, shares, and comments to profile you and to serve up advertisements based on your interests

It’s a bit trickier to keep track of your passive digital footprint because sites aren’t disclosing they are downloading cookies, pinpointing your exact location, and tracking your activity.

Why does your digital footprint matter?

Your digital footprint is your paper trail and online reputation—nearly all your activity is being tracked and absorbed. But what exactly does this mean, and why does it matter?

The digital footprint you leave behind is important because:

  • It’s basically permanent once the data is available to the general public, especially with social media posts.
  • It can determine your reputation online, which is almost as important as your offline reputation.
  • Employers can investigate potential new hires before making a final decision.
  • Colleges and universities can investigate prospective students' social media before sending out acceptance letters.
  • Your words, images, and videos can be misinterpreted or even altered for malicious purposes.
  • Bad actors may share your private messages with a larger group of people and potentially damage friendships, relationships, and reputations.
  • Cybercriminals can steal and use your personal information for phishing purposes or create fake accounts using your data.

These reasons factor into the importance of your online identity and activity.

Digital footprint examples

Graphic showing the five main categories of digital footprints.

Your digital footprint is larger than you might think. Let’s go through the five main categories of digital footprints: shopping, finances, fitness and health, news and reading, and social media. While we already discussed social media at length, let’s go through the other categories.

Shopping online is one of the most common ways to track your digital footprint. Aside from making purchases, your information is being tracked whenever you create a new account or sign up for promo codes or even newsletters. While shopping apps are convenient, you’re enlarging your digital footprint.

Your financial activity is also adding to your online reputation. When you open a credit card or use banking apps, your activity is getting tracked. If you buy or sell stocks, this also adds to your online trail. Even signing up for financial publications adds to it.

Signing up for a gym membership is one spot you might not think affects your digital footprint. When you give your email address to open a new membership or subscribe to a fitness or health blog, your activity is getting tracked here. Also, if you track your workouts through an app.

Your news and leisure reading also add to your digital footprint. Signing up for an online news site, reading on a news app, and even subscribing to newsletters are all digital footprint examples. Sharing articles you’ve read also adds to your digital footprint.

7 steps to protect your digital footprint

You can create your digital footprint actively or passively, but there are a few steps to take to protect it. Let’s jump into a few ways you can control your digital footprint and take action.

Graphic showing how to protect your digital footprint.

1. Enter your name into several search engines

The first step to protecting your digital footprint is tracking down where you've left it. To do this, use multiple search engines to discover what's listed about you online. For instance, search:

  • Name and city
  • Name and employer
  • Name and high school or college

If you’ve recently changed your name, look up both your prior name and your current one. Try the common misspellings as well.

Review the first two pages of results:

  • Are they positive?
  • Do they show you in a professional and respectable light? 

If anything comes up that you don’t like, ask the site administrator to take it down.

Setting up Google Alerts is one way to monitor your name. Every time someone mentions it, you will get a notification.

If you have a common name, it may also help to attach keywords to your search, including your location and activities that may associate your name with a Google alert.

Real estate websites and whitepages.com may have more information about you than you might want to be disclosed. Personal information like your phone number, address, and age tend to show up. Get in touch with the websites and have that information removed.

2. Double-check your social media privacy settings, but don’t trust them

Privacy settings on social media allow you to control who sees your posts on your social media streams. Spend some time getting to know these settings to use them fully.

Facebook allows you not only to limit posts merely to friends but also to make customized lists of people who can see certain posts. Don't assume that privacy settings will protect you anywhere but on the social media site that uses them. 

However, regarding private Facebook posts, even private posts may be subject to discovery if they are found relevant. This simply means the opposing party has a right to see the material. You can access Facebook’s privacy settings here.

Along with Facebook, Instagram and TikTok also have their own privacy settings you can update. To access this information, go to your account, and there should be an option to modify your settings and privacy.

3. Create strong passwords

Any time you need a password, create one that uses a combination of the following:

  • At least 10 numbers
  • Symbols
  • Uppercase and lowercase letters

Avoid using common words, as password cracking tools can use every word in the dictionary to try to access your password. Make it a strong password that’s easy for you to remember but that would be hard for someone else to guess. Avoid the most popular choices, like birthdates and anniversaries or the names of your spouse, children, or pets.

If remembering unique passwords for different websites is hard, then a password manager may come in handy for you. A password manager creates unique and complex passwords for all your favorite websites. Norton Password Manager helps you create strong passwords and store them more securely.

4. Keep all your software up to date

Computer viruses and other malware may try to mine your digital footprint, and they are constantly getting updated. To help protect yourself, ensure that your antivirus software and other software programs are up to date. Older software can be more vulnerable to attack by hackers.

Outdated software could house a wealth of digital footprints. Without the latest updates, cybercriminals could gain access to this information.

5. Review your mobile usage—if you don’t need it, delete it

Set a password or lock pattern on your mobile device. That way, other people can’t access your device if you accidentally lose or misplace it. 

From time to time, review the apps on your phone or tablet. What are their privacy or information-sharing settings? If you don’t use an app anymore, delete it.

When installing an app, read the fine print. Many apps disclose what information they collect and what they'll use it for. These apps may mine personal information like your email, location, and online activities.

6. Build your reputation through your behavior

Contribute to your positive, professional digital footprint by posting only those things that contribute to the image of you that you want your employer, banks, or professors to see. Skip the negative tweets, un-tag yourself from questionable Facebook photos, and keep critical comments to yourself. Instead, consider building a positive reputation by starting a blog or website that showcases your work or a hobby you’re passionate about.

Remember that employers, colleges, and others can look up your digital footprint to get an idea of your online reputation. Keeping a clean online presence may help you in the future.

7. Use a VPN

Another way to help safeguard your digital footprint is to use a virtual private network, or VPN, to protect your privacy online and even to help prevent websites from installing cookies that can track your internet browsing history.

A VPN gives you online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from your home or public internet connection.

VPNs help by masking your IP address, so your online actions are virtually untraceable. Norton Secure VPN, a trusted VPN service, can help secure your private information and prevent websites from collecting your data.

Help secure your digital footprint today

Think of your digital footprint as an extension of who you are. Be careful about what you share, like, or comment on. Avoid sharing too much personal information online. If there is something distasteful about you online, contact the website’s administrator to request that the information be taken down.

Keep track of all your accounts, and keep an eye on the internet privacy settings from time to time. Privacy settings can change when the developer updates an app. It may be impossible to erase your digital footprint, but you can work toward making it a positive. Comprehensive online security software like Norton 360 Deluxe includes a built-in VPN to help keep your browsing private and protect your personal data.

FAQs about digital footprints

Here are answers to a few of the most-asked questions about digital footprints.

Can anyone see my digital footprint?

Yes, most of your digital footprint is public, which is why it’s so important to watch what you post. Be mindful whenever you post anything on social media or communicate with your followers.

Who can potentially see your digital footprint?

Your online identity can influence different aspects of your life. People who view your digital footprint could use it as a basis for character assessment.

Your digital footprint is available to the following people:

  • Employers
  • Schools
  • Colleges
  • Law enforcement officials 
  • Data brokers
  • Advertisers
  • Phone companies
  • Internet providers
  • Peers
  • Coworkers
  • Cybercriminals
  • Hackers

How do I remove my digital footprint?

While it’s nearly impossible to remove your digital footprint, you can rebuild your online reputation. Start by deactivating inactive accounts. Conduct a Google or Bing search and change or delete any personal information you find. You can also set up search alerts to monitor your mentions. Deleting cookies from your account can also help prevent sites from monitoring your activity.

How serious is a digital footprint?

Your digital footprint is very important online and offline. Potential employers, schools, and even cybercriminals can view your online reputation. It’s important to be mindful of what you are posting online, keep track of your digital activity, and use privacy settings.

How do you track your digital footprint?

You can track your digital footprint through a simple search of your name, city, employer, and school. Track your digital footprint through search alerts. You can also use a VPN and other cybersecurity tools to keep your browsing history private.

Clare Stouffer
  • Clare Stouffer
  • Gen employee
Clare Stouffer, a Gen employee, is a writer and editor for the company’s blogs. She covers various topics in cybersecurity.

Editorial note: Our articles provide educational information for you. Our offerings may not cover or protect against every type of crime, fraud, or threat we write about. Our goal is to increase awareness about Cyber Safety. Please review complete Terms during enrollment or setup. Remember that no one can prevent all identity theft or cybercrime, and that LifeLock does not monitor all transactions at all businesses. The Norton and LifeLock brands are part of Gen Digital Inc. 


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