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Published: Oct 16, 2023 14 min read

*Content includes branded mentions of our sponsor, Norton Secure VPN.

If you’ve spent any amount of time online, you have a digital footprint. Your digital footprint is a collection of data created by your online activities. While it can help create a personalized online experience for you, it can also leave your identity at risk.

In this guide, we’ll break down everything you need to know about your digital footprint, including how it works, where it comes from and how you can manage it to protect your digital identity.

What is a digital footprint?

A digital footprint is a unique data set that describes who you are online. You contribute to your digital footprint every time you scroll, like, click or buy.

There are a lot of benefits to having a digital footprint. For one thing, it can improve your browsing and shopping experience with personalized ads and search results. It can also help to improve your online security by making fraud easier to detect­. If your online bank, for example, notices spending activity that doesn’t fit with your habits, it can freeze your card.

On top of that, your digital footprint can help you project a positive image online. Your social media posts and other publicly available information contribute to your online reputation. Employers may look into your digital footprint and reputation to learn more about you.

However, your digital footprint can pose an online privacy risk. You may unintentionally share information that third parties can access and sell to other businesses. Your personal information could be exposed to identity thieves, so managing it as much as possible is important.

How does a digital footprint work?

Most online browsing isn’t private, even if you’re using a “private” browser. Sites use cookies, or small lines of code, to identify you as a unique user. But your digital footprint isn’t just made up of cookies — it also includes your social media profiles, search history and shopping activity.

Your digital footprint will look slightly different depending on who has access to it. For example, your favorite online shopping platform might have a unique profile of you that includes your purchase history, location, past searches and more. Apps like Instagram and X might have different profiles that include your tagged posts and browsing activity.

In other words, you can think of your digital footprint like a shadow — it looks a little different from every angle, but it provides a basic outline of who you are. Marketers use this digital shadow to personalize the online ads they show you. It can also be used by banks to strengthen security and by prospective employers who want to learn more about you.

Types of digital footprints

There are two main types of digital footprints: active and passive. These two footprints are made up of either “intentional” or “unintentional” data. In other words, there’s a footprint you put out into the world and one that can form without you even knowing about it.

We’ll break this difference down in more detail below.

Active digital footprint

Your active digital footprint is shaped by information you intentionally put online. It includes things like your social media posts, emails and text messages. Managing this intentional data is one of the easiest ways to create a positive digital footprint and protect your online reputation.

This is especially important for business owners and public figures. Everything you put online becomes a part of your active footprint and can be seen by other people, so be careful about what you post or write.

Passive digital footprint

A passive digital footprint is made up of a data trail you unintentionally leave behind. That might include your IP address, location, search history and shopping habits. This footprint is not as immediately visible as your active footprint, but it can be tracked by private companies and — more importantly — hackers.

If you’re wondering how to protect yourself online, managing your passive footprint is an important aspect. Tools like VPNs, identity protection services and malware protection can help to keep this personal information private.

Examples of digital footprints

To further explain how digital footprints work, let’s look at two different examples.

Person A is a 25-year-old woman with an active social media presence. If you search her name on Google, you can see part of her active footprint: her photos, posts and a few comments written by other people. This gives you a basic idea of who Person A is. Meanwhile, third-party data collection sites have built a unique profile of her online shopping habits and browser history, so her digital footprint may also include the street she lives on, her favorite brands and her latest Google searches.

Person B is a 50-year-old man with no social media presence. If you search for him online, you might find an old newspaper article or a family member’s obituary, if anything. His active digital footprint is very small. However, he spends a lot of time browsing online, so his pastimes, geolocation and even political preferences are revealed in his passive digital footprint.

While Person A and Person B might think they have very different digital footprints, they share similar types of information through their browsing activity, Google search history, YouTube watch history, and more. That information is visible to private companies and potential identity thieves.

Is digital footprint real?

Your digital footprint is real, even if you can’t see it. As illustrated above, even people who don’t use social media share information about themselves whenever they browse online.

That doesn’t mean your online footprint is a bad thing. It’s just a fact of life in the digital age — everyone leaves some sort of impression online. However, you can take steps to manage that impression so your internet footprint doesn’t leave you vulnerable to identity theft.

How are digital assets and digital footprints related?

A digital asset is anything of value that exists only in a digital format. For example, an audiobook or digital artwork could be considered a digital asset. Today, we generally use the term to refer to digital tokens or cryptocurrencies.

Any digital assets you own are part of your digital footprint. If you own crypto, it’s important to protect your digital shadow from identity thieves so they can’t access it.

What are the consequences of a digital footprint?

As discussed above, a digital footprint can have positive effects. It can help to personalize your browsing activity and improve your online security. However, it can also have negative consequences. Those might include the following:

  • A negative online reputation: A negative reputation created by social media posts, including tagged posts, can hurt your chances on the job market. Deleting digital footprint data that contributes to a negative reputation can be challenging.
  • Security threats: Hackers and identity thieves might be able to access your personal information, including your address and bank account details, through your digital footprint, creating a cybersecurity risk.
  • Annoying ads: Targeted ads might make shopping online more convenient, but not everyone likes them.

How to check your digital footprint

There are a few ways to check your digital footprint. One of the easiest methods is to Google your name — this can show you the publicly available information contributing to your digital footprint. For example, you might find some old social media posts you forgot about or a mention of your name in a local article.

You can also use a digital footprint checker to see aspects of your passive digital footprint. Some of these services are free and only require an email or social media handle. While a digital footprint finder might not show you all of your online information, it can be a helpful tool to see which websites and data collection agencies have your information.

How to protect your digital footprint and online identity

If you’re surprised by the results of your digital footprint search, don’t panic. There are ways to manage your footprint and boost your online security.

Here are a few digital footprint safety tips you’ll want to keep in mind:

  • Check every website’s privacy policy: Read the site’s cookie policy before you make an account or provide any information, especially if you’re making a purchase. Figure out what information the website collects and how it uses and shares it. You may also want to see how long it keeps your information.
  • Use strong passwords: Strong passwords are a simple but effective security measure to protect your identity by making it harder for cybercriminals to access your online accounts. Consider using a password manager or generator to create and store unique passwords.
  • Clear your browsing data: Your browsing history can be accessed by other people who use your device and third parties that collect data. To help protect your data, you can clear your search history, browsing data and cookies in your browser’s settings.
  • Set your social media profiles to private: When your social media accounts are public, anyone can view your posts through search engines or directly on the social media platforms. Strict privacy settings can limit what’s available for anyone to see. Additionally, avoid oversharing personal information on social media sites.
  • Don’t fill out surveys: When a random questionnaire pops up on a new site you visit, don’t engage. It will just provide the company with more information about you.
  • Use a “spam” email address: Create a separate email address just for marketing companies. You can use it for online shopping to protect your personal email.
  • Opt out whenever possible: When given the option to accept cookies or decline, choose to opt out.

A reliable VPN service can help you protect your online presence by hiding your IP address and browsing history, blocking your location and more.

How to erase your digital footprint

There is no way to delete your digital footprint completely — it’s something that all internet users have. As long as you browse, use credit cards and interact with others online, you’ll have some kind of online presence.

That said, it is possible to erase some of your digital footprint — or at least any aspects that could harm your reputation or online security. One way to do that is to remove yourself from data broker websites, which are websites that gather your information from other sources and sell it. Here’s how to remove your information from data brokers:

  • Find sites that have your information: You can manually check for your information on data broker websites or use a digital footprint search tool to find which companies have your information.
  • Find the site’s opt-out form: Some data brokers have downloadable opt-out forms on their websites. Others might be accessible by email. If you can’t find an option to opt out of the data collection service, call the company’s customer support line.
  • Make removal requests: Fill out the form to request that your data be removed from the site.

Other steps you can take to scrub your digital footprint include deleting old social media profiles and email accounts as well as regularly clearing your browsing data.

Digital footprint FAQ

What does it mean to have a positive digital footprint?

A positive digital footprint refers to an online presence that doesn't harm your security or reputation. You can build a positive digital footprint by maintaining an appropriate, professional social media presence and being careful about what you post online.

Why is your digital footprint important?

A digital footprint can help to improve your online experience, but it can also make your identity vulnerable. It's important to be aware of your digital footprint so you know how much information about yourself is available online.

Who can see your digital footprint?

Some aspects of your digital footprint, such as your social media profiles, are available to everyone. Other information might only be visible to data brokers, who can sell it to other businesses. Put simply, any information you find about yourself online — through a Google search or digital footprint check — can be seen by anyone.

Summary of Money's What Is a Digital Footprint?

Everyone who uses the internet has a digital footprint. And that isn’t always a bad thing. Our digital footprints tell the world who we are — they can project a positive image and help to prevent fraud.

However, your digital footprint might also contain a lot of private information. Your information could be vulnerable to exposure in data breaches and also identity theft. Protect your digital footprint by following basic online security steps, clearing your browsing data and opting out of cookies. If you aren’t sure how much of your personal information is available online, try a digital footprint search. It’s essential to understand your digital footprint so that you can manage it and protect your identity.