By Brittany Czodli
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Today’s people are spending enormous amounts of time and giving out enormous amounts of information via the Internet. This brings about questions relating to privacy such as; how protected is the data you are putting online? Who is looking at your data? And how can you protect it? These are all questions that you should be asking yourself if you are an avid Internet user. The following research paper seeks to answer these questions for you by examining what an individual’s digital footprint is and the steps that can be taken in order to protect one’s online identity. Research for this paper was gathered over a three to four week time period.
There are currently more than 3 billion Internet users in the world today and that number is growing every single second (David Gorodyansky). With the rise of the Internet and digital communication through smart phones, laptops, tablets and so on the concern for ones digital privacy rose with it. Today people are giving out more personal information about themselves online then ever before. They are sharing their locations, contact information, credit card numbers on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon, and many other websites. Beyond just these personal facts about ones self being let out online people are also sharing their interest, what they are looking at, what they like, and what they don’t with people online, whether they are aware of it or not (David Gorodyansky). Whether it someone is shopping for a new sweater or looking up information about a project they are working on, a marketer, government official, hacker, or data miner is watching, saving, tracking, and even selling your clicks, likes and so on for one reason or another. Internet users are not aware of what is going on behind their computer and just how much data is being generated. Cioccheti, a writer on digital privacy, stated, “ once digitized, such information is virtually irretrievable and may be intercepted or purchased by commercial entities, governments, or individuals for marketing or other purposes” (Markwick, Dias, & Palfery, 2010, p 7). It is important in this day in age that Internet users know how the information they are putting online may be being used as well as how to protect it.
So before we dive into who may be looking at your digital footprint and how you can go about protecting it we first must understand what a persons digital footprint is exactly. According to the Internet Society, “ Your digital footprint is all the stuff you leave behind as you use the Internet. Comments on social media, Skype calls, applications used, emails delivered and sent- its part of your online history and can potentially be seen by other people, or tracked in a database” (Internet Society). So how do our digital footprints get left online? If you are an online shopper, a social media user, or own a mobile phone, laptop or tablet you are leaving behind a digital footprint.
Some ways that your digital footprint is left behind according to the Internet Society are through retailers leaving cookies on your system to track you movement while you travel from site to site. The main purpose of companies doing this is so that they can put advertisements on your browsers for products you have recently looked at or may be interested based on your online history (Internet Society). It is not just retail websites that track what you are doing online, every comment, status, or picture you post on social media is being tracked and recorded, therefore, making up your online identity. The use and privacy of your social media accounts is very crucial in this day in age. Although we will dive into this topic in more detail later on, make sure that you are always careful about what you post online; once it is published it stays online forever.
What you do, look at, and put online makes up your online identity. Although this online identity may not always be a true justification of our actual identity companies are seeking to get closer to you through this online identity (Britton, Katherine). According to findings from Pew and Research Center, nearly half of online users are becoming more aware of their digital footprints and starting to protect their digital privacy (Britton, Katherine). If you haven’t already it is time for you to join this half percent and start protecting yours.
Digital privacy is the protection of the information of individual’s private information online. It should be your decision if what you put online is sold or used by a third party and there are many ways that you as an individual internet user can make sure you are protecting yourself and personal information and documents online.
Why Protection is Important
Your privacy on the Internet depends on a number of things, your ability to protect your data, the amount of data you are releasing, who allow seeing your personal information, and what websites you are sharing personal information on. You must remember that when you are looking at all this stuff online, it is looking back at you (Britton, Katherine). Extensive research was done before finalizing this paper on the absolute necessary and best practices when protecting your digital footprint. The following steps listed below are in no particular order but should all be considered and utilized in order to maintain a good online, private, identity.
A common argument that online users state when talking about their digital footprint and digital privacy is. “Why should I care, I have nothing to hide” (Mansfield-Devine, Steve). However, as stated before you should care because digital footprints contain a lot about you and that information about you is distributed to third parties, sometimes for monetary value (Mansfield-Devine, Steve). Before I go on I want to address that your digital footprint is not all bad although it does have its cost to your privacy it also has its benefits for quickly navigating the Web. Some specific benefits are that it saves you time when visiting frequently used websites. Websites that you use almost everyday can save your log in name and password so all you have to do is click and you are logged into your account. This also applies to online stores who save your credit card on file for speedy check out (Mansfield-Devine, Steve). Although these can guarantee convince they also pose a threat to your privacy. Through my studies I narrowed it down to four reasons why Internet users should care about their digital privacy. First, you want to maintain your reputation. Like I have stated numerous times your online usage creates your own personal online identity, do you want everyone knowing what you are doing online and forming an opinion of you based on that? Sometimes opinions can be gathered from data of your online activities that are taken out of context. For example, Internet Society, said that if you are out to dinner with friends at a bar and pay for the bill and then go and pay for your parking it could form a person looking at your bank records to believe that you drove after spending a decent amount of money at a bar, when that could’ve not been the case at all (Internet Society). The second reason is maintaining the ability to decide where and how your personal information is shared. Lets say that you have a health issue going on by searching your medical issue, booking doctors appointments online, and even messaging a family member or friend about it means that a third party could get this information through cookies and other forms of data gathering (Internet Society). You may want your family knowing about your personal life but do you want a random company, or even your boss knowing? Thirdly, having an unprotected digital footprint can make you more vulnerable to financial loss and theft (Mansfield-Devine, Steve). Just like we talked about earlier how its convenient for online retail stores to keep your credit card number saved for a quick purchase it can also be extremely risky. A hacker could break into a company’s database and steal your card number. Take for example in 2013 when Targets online database was hacked and millions of people’s emails and credit card information was stolen (Ziener, C.). Over 40 million target customers became the victims of a breach in their digital privacy and theft because they added their credit cards into the Target website to be saved (Ziener, C.). Finally, and although this is not as prevalent for most Americans, protecting your digital privacy also means protecting your freedom. In many countries outside America social media platforms are monitored or even forbidden in order to limit what users are saying online (Ziener, C.). So even though you may not have anything to hide you may be at risk by just giving your location, credit card number, or personal information.
Steps to Protection
There are many ways to protect your digital footprint online, however I just want to share a few of the overall most important ones I found while conducting my research. The following list of six steps has all been credited to scholars who dedicate their time to researching online privacy and how we can protect it. A computer programmer at Microsoft came out with an article recently on what he believes are the crucial steps to take when protecting your digital privacy. Let us look into some of these steps in more detail.
The first step to always consider when thinking about your online privacy is to make sure the website you are on is credible and safe. All credible websites should have a Privacy & Policy section that states what data the website may be gathering, how they use, share, and secure your data. If you are not able to find the Privacy & Policy statement of the website or it does not seem credible, move on to a different website (Buchmann, Johannes).
The second step is to create strong passwords and keep all important and private files, even just on your desktop, under a secure password protected folder. So what is a strong password? According to an article from the ACM Digital Library, there are certain steps to take when creating a strong password. First, don’t use any thing about you that could easily be guessed like your moms madden name, your first pets name, etc. Secondly, your password shouldn’t a dictionary word or combination of dictionary words. Finally, your password should contain at least 12 characters, some of those including symbols, numbers, capital letters and lower case letters. Having strong passwords can lead to a stronger protection against data miners and hackers (Buchmann, Johannes).
The next step is to turn on cookie notices in your web browser, or use cookie management software. Remember that cookies are little pieces of information that is saved on web sites or your computer. Cookies are the passwords and IDs that are saved for you on certain websites for a fast log in. However, there are other uses for cookies such as data mining and tracking your online usage for marketing and other purposes. You as an Internet user can control cookies and what pieces of information they are taking. Netscape, allows you to see a notice when a site tries to write a cookie to your hard drive. Internet Explorer also allows you to turn off cookies in a notification box. Make sure that if one of these boxes pop up you only enable cookies for sites you 100% trust (Buchmann, Johannes).
Another step that a lot of Internet users do not think about is using encryption. Again you may be asking yourself, if I have nothing to hide why would I encrypt my information? For a number of reasons you may want to. Encrypting information such as billing, social security numbers, and credit cards can protect you from identity or financial fraud. There are websites available for free that you can use to protect your digital privacy such as PGP, which runs on almost all computers and is safe. Apple Inc. encrypts all of their customer’s information and usage. Encrypting something means that you are putting the information in a secret code that is almost impossible to crack. Don’t believe me? The FBI once tried cracking some of Apples encryption to find a serial killer, Apple would not break the customers encryption and the FBI couldn’t do it themselves. Talk about a tough code to break (Buchmann, Johannes).
Finally the next step you can take to ensure online privacy is not only to make sure the website you are using is secure but also the Wi-Fi you are using is too. Public Wi-Fi should always be checked before joining. Many hackers can get onto your computer through your Wi-Fi. Just like making sure the website you are accessing is reliable make sure the Wi-Fi is too (Buchmann, Johannes).
Before I conclude I want you to take a look at this infographic made about protecting your digital footprint. It gives you some more statistics and some facts about protecting yourself online:
After reading this essay I hope that you have a better understanding of what your digital footprint is, how marketers, data miners, and hackers are using your information and why they want them, as well as how to protect your digital privacy. Protecting your online identity is a huge issue that you have control over protecting. As our usage of the Internet continues to increase so does the threat to our privacy. Even if you have nothing to hide you should always make sure you are protecting your information online just like you would in your day to day activates
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Mansfield-Devine, Steve. "The Battle For Privacy." Network Security 2016.6 (2016): 11-15. Computers & Applied Sciences Complete. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
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David Gorodyansky, "Internet Privacy and Security: A Shared Responsibility." Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, n.d. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
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Ziener, C. "Protect Yourself Online: Learn Easy Ways To Keep Your PC, Your Privacy, And Your Wallet Safe On The Internet." Library Journal 126.10 (n.d.): 208. Social Sciences Citation Index. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
Buchmann, Johannes. Internet Privacy. [Electronic Resource]: Options For Adequate Realisation. n.p.: Weisbaden : Springer, 2013, 2013. MU Library Catalog. Web. 23 Oct. 2016.
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