Why should I care about my Digital Footprint?

Your digital footprint relates to the trail and tracks (footprints) you leave on the web. It extends beyond social media applications and reaches into any data point that relates to you as a person.

Why should I care?

Your digital footprint can be split into two categories: Your implicit footprint and your explicit footprint. Together they represent who you are in the digital world. The part you need to be aware of is, if what you think you are representing to be, actually stacks up with whom people think you are.

By understanding your implicit and explicit footprint you can figure out if it’s the case and fix it if not. After all, it’s your image that you are projecting and similar to going to a stylist to project that you are fly in the real world, you want to be sure you are projecting an accurate and best possible representation of yourself online too.

What’s the difference?

Your implicit footprint relates to data points that you are not fully aware of. This includes data coming from almost any digital application or device you are engaging with. Examples range from tracking technology (e.g. online tracking or mobile location tracking) and engagement data for content filter algorithms (e.g. using page views to understand what topics you are interested in) to engagement data for advertisement and purchase data for item recommendations (e.g. Amazon’s Product recommendation).

It is difficult to be aware of your implicit digital footprint due to the missing transparency of the underlying applications. The result is that you might decrease your trust in different applications, such as dropping out of a social media platform.

Your explicit footprint is easier to get a hold of. It relates to data you can find and, in some cases, you can control. Explicit footprint data typically relates to profile pages, likes, comments, purchase histories etc.

A simple test to check your explicit footprint is to search for your name in a search engine. The higher up the page is the more explicit your footprint on the given page or application is.

In relation to data awareness, you might think that the only part that you need to focus on is the implicit footprint. After all, that is the part that you cannot get insight on.

Why can I not get access to that information? After all its about me.

It is mostly due to the commercial interests of the application providers. Opening up the data is possible and your right under EU law, however, the key is to also open up the algorithm that makes a decision on your behalf. This would allow you to understand why certain news items are missing in your feed.

Opening the algorithm, however, is a lot more complex. Ignoring the commercial impact such insight would have the main question would be how to actually visualise these decisions. Some application have a ‘Why am I seeing this?’ option which is useful but usually only gives a shallow high-level overview such as that you showed interest in a similar post not too long ago.

However, the implicit footprint is not the core issue keeping in mind that in most cases not even the advertiser or application designers themselves can create a connected picture of all the implicit data out there about you. In most cases reduced and aggregated data is used to capture the complexity.

What about the data I have access to?

The issue is more in the explicit footprint. The type footprint that you and everyone else can see.

The essential question now becomes what do people see and what does that mean for you and who you are?

Explicit footprint awareness can work both ways. It can portrait something you are not but are not aware of (the drunk college foto that re-appears just before a job interview) or masterminding your explicit footprint can create an image of what you are not (a superhero with bat-like ears).

How can I become more aware of my explicit digital footprint?

To fully grasp your explicit digital footprint you require knowledge and insight into every application that emits data about you. This includes every online application and website you engage with from social media to personal websites.

However, this is not easy. Let’s focus on Facebook for example. Are you fully aware of what you are doing on facebook? Fully aware of every post you liked all the way back to when you started to use facebook? How about every comment? And are you aware of everyone who engaged on your posts?

This is where Digital Footprint awareness gets interesting. It can be argued that we are not even aware of our explicit footprint. However, if that is the case how can we become aware of privacy needs that we might have? What level of online privacy do we actually want and need?

What can I do if don’t like what I find?

For past data, you can try to delete aspects of the data that you don’t like. This can include cleaning up your social media profiles and updating pages and applications that you have access to. A more radical approach is to avail of the EU ‘Right to be forgotten’ directive. Based on this you can request data to be deleted including search index links. This may mean the source website is still accessible however it will not show in search results anymore. For future data the simple answer is, increase your data awareness by keeping in mind that every click you make is added to an overall footprint that represents who you are.

How can I find out more about this?

If you are interested in exploring this aspect of your digital life more I invite you to check out a research project specifically focused on investigating the challenge of creating awareness of your explicit digital footprint.

This project (called Bigfoot) explores how aware you are by asking you specific questions about your engagement on Facebook, such as how often do you like a post, how often do you think others like your post etc. 10 questions in total.

In a second step, your questions are compared with your actual behaviour. Both aspects (perceived footprint and actual footprint) are then compared. This allows you to understand if you have a mismatch in what you think you are doing related to what you are actually doing.

Have there been any interesting results yet?

The experiment has attracted over 300 users and preliminary results are showing an interesting bias. Users tend to be more aware of what others are doing with their posts (like, comment etc.) than what they are doing with the posts of others. This would confirm that it is more important to us as users how other people engage with our posts than how we engage with other people’s posts. This, however, if the data continues to hold up, points to a mismatch in awareness of what we are engaging with online.

Why is this important?

Your data represents you and your behaviour and like in the real world you are responsible for what people and algorithms think you stand for. Data awareness is the cornerstone of what it means to be s Digital Citizen.

I invite you to check the Bigfoot app if you are interested or any other project and reading below.

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Bigfoot Project — Bigfoot.ie

Bigfoot App Apple — https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/bigfoot-digital-footprint/id1170084708

Bigfoot App Android Play — https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.bigfoot.bigfoot&hl=en

FT — Podcasts: The Privacy Paradox — soothing and terrifying: https://www.ft.com/content/65700d3e-ef84-11e6-ba01-119a44939bb6

Note to Self: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/notetoself