You can’t erase your digital footprint, but you can take steps to safeguard it.
You’ve likely heard of the term “digital footprint,” but you may not fully understand what that means or how to optimize your online presence for greater privacy and security. In our increasingly digital world, it’s important to be knowledgeable about these matters, so let’s review the basics.
A digital footprint is an accumulation of all your activities online. Think about the routine things you do each day—crafting a social media post, making a purchase, activating an account, registering for a newsletter, checking the weather, completing a survey or sharing an article.
All these actions leave a digital trail, which can include your IP address as well as any personal details of your life that you’ve shared online. (An IP address is a unique series of numbers that’s assigned to each internet-connected device. It may reveal the city, area code or ZIP code from where you’re connecting, but not your name, mailing address or phone number.) This data can be tracked and analyzed by marketers, credit card issuers, advertisers, law enforcement agencies and other organizations to learn about your habits and create a customized profile.
In short, your digital footprint is similar to the footprints you leave when walking on a fresh blanket of snow. Others will be able to see where you’ve been. And while snow footprints will eventually fade away, digital footprints can be permanent.
Digital footprints can actually be beneficial. They can enhance the time you spend online by providing a more personalized, convenient experience—such as remembering your last food order or enabling you to receive targeted, exclusive offers that align with your interests.
You can even help create a “positive” footprint of yourself for others you might want to impress online—such as your boss, future employers or college admissions officers—by shaping your image through the messages, photos and other information you provide on social media or other online platforms.
But your digital footprint can also lead to a variety of negatives, such as unwanted solicitations, decreased privacy and identity theft. Cybercriminals can use your footprint to unleash more targeted, effective social engineering schemes, such as phishing attacks, and other scams against you.
Fortunately, you can limit the potentially damaging impacts of your digital footprint by taking the following measures:
Search for yourself: Doing an online search about yourself may seem a bit vain. But it’s a good way to see the type of information that’s readily available about you. Try this with multiple search engines and explore the first several pages of results.
Be prepared to be surprised, though, by what you uncover. It can be alarming. If you find sensitive data you don’t want revealed—or if you come across information that’s incorrect, misleading or inappropriate—contact the site administrator to request removal of the material.
Set alerts: After performing your search, consider setting up alerts to more easily keep track of your online mentions in the future. With an alert, you’ll receive a notification whenever your name appears online.
To help eliminate results from other individuals with your same name, you can add keywords to your search that are associated with you (such as your hometown).
Use tighter privacy settings: Service providers for social media, e-commerce, email, search engines, web browsers, online conferencing and more often give their users the ability to manage the privacy settings for their accounts.
Using more restrictive settings can reduce your digital footprint and give you greater peace of mind. The National Cybersecurity Alliance provides direct links to manage privacy settings for many popular sites.
Just be aware, though, that increasing your security may interfere with some of the usability of the site or lead to other drawbacks. For example, deleting your search history can make it more inconvenient when doing future searches. Or blocking pop-up ads may prevent you from seeing ads or offers you’d normally welcome. Although the benefit of greater privacy is often worth these trade-offs, you should understand the implications of your actions before making any changes.
Be cautious with social media: Even if you adopt stronger privacy settings, you still should be judicious about what you choose to reveal about yourself online. For example, use caution when responding to social media surveys as they can reveal personal information.
Or, you might want to proudly post a picture of your new grandchild on a social media account. But remember that anything you share online can be re-shared by friends, family members and colleagues without your consent.
And once that happens, it’s out of your control who will end up seeing your information.
Restrict mobile app permissions: Whenever you grant a mobile app access to your photos, location, camera, contacts and other information, it makes your data available to the app owner. So, be selective before giving an app permission to all the types of information it requests. Keep in mind that many apps will still work even if all permissions aren’t granted.
Limit your online accounts: Having a lot of online accounts leads to a bigger footprint. However, you can quickly reduce your footprint by deleting or deactivating accounts you no longer need. For example, is it necessary to have several email accounts? And what about that account you opened three years ago with an online retailer that you haven’t used since?
Be selective about opening new accounts, too. If you have the choice of checking out as a guest with a retailer instead of creating an account, it’s better to use that option unless you plan to be a frequent customer.
Use a password manager: A password manager is a software tool that securely creates, encrypts and stores unique, complex passwords for you. And since you should have a different password for each account, this saves you from the headache of remembering all those passwords.
Enable Multi-Factor Authentication (sometimes called Two-Factor Authentication) as well for any accounts where it’s offered.
Think before linking accounts: Some service providers allow you to register with their business by using an account you have with another company. For instance, maybe they’ll invite you to sign in through your Facebook or Google account.
Doing so grants these other organizations access to even more information about your online activities, which means you’ll need to decide if the convenience is worth the potential added exposure.
We respect your concerns about privacy and pledge to continue to protect the information you share with us.
Morgan Stanley does not provide your information to third parties, such as data brokers. Data brokers are companies that collect sensitive information about you—including your date of birth, home address, phone number, job title, education level, political-party affiliation, hobbies and buying habits—and then sell it to other companies interested in marketing their products or services to you.