What Exactly Is A Digital Footprint?

December 5th, 2023
Author: Rune Seregina


“Nothing on the internet can be erased,” is an expression commonly said as a warning to use the internet safely and responsibly, but what happens to all those deleted social media posts and text messages? Every action taken on the internet leaves a trail of data that is stored within databases. These databases are extensive collections of user-profiles and history that are kept and stored for long periods of time, if not forever. 

One’s digital footprint is the culmination of their “data trail”. The term is used to refer to a person’s entire online presence and includes data gathered from clicks on a website to social media posts to geolocation history. 

Utilization of Collected Data

There are numerous reasons that corporations may want to view and collect user data. Businesses often want to gather mass data about their customers’ interest and engagement in their websites and products. Data collection could also be centered around a specific individual’s internet history. There are both positive and negative effects of a digital footprint. 

A positive example of digital footprint use is that suspicious activity can be more easily detected due to the trackability of actions on the internet. For example, a business could identify a malicious user by viewing and analyzing their activity for potential warning signs such as the use of a VPN or a temporary email address.

Conversely, many applications to a job or university may be turned away due to a negative digital footprint that the applicants were unaware of.

Browser Cookies

When browsing the web, users often come across sites asking them to “accept cookies”. Cookies, as used by web browsers, are small files containing data related to user behavior that are collected and stored in that browser’s folder on the computer’s hard drive. 

Cookies help save information such as a user’s preferred language, auto-fill logins, and search history. However, they are also a way for parties to be able to mass-collect information about a user to create a profile about them based on search history and interests. The collected information is shared with other websites to create targeted advertisements.


One way for employers to find information about applicants that is not found on their resumes is by researching their internet presence to determine their candidacy. It is usually a form of background checking and can include confirming the validity of qualifications, viewing credit scores, or flagging problematic social media posts. 

Cybervetting must be used with caution as it is a tool that could potentially interfere with protected information that falls under non-discriminatory information such as race, religion, or disability. Some laws protect the information collected in a background check, such as Title VII for anti-discrimination, which “prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.” 

The implementation of this law involves policies such as obtaining consent from candidates before searching them up, using the same criteria for each candidate, only gathering relevant information, and cyber vetting candidates as a final step in the employment process. These policies lessen the effect that cyber vetting has on the impression of an applicant and ensure that the focus remains on factors such as their resume and interview. 

Evidence Acquisition

A user’s online activity could be used as a form of evidence acquisition in court. There is debate as to when and what type of evidence is permissible to be obtained and used in court. The Fourth Amendment which protects against unreasonable search and seizure could conflict with information shared by third parties. For example, a case in 2018 used voice recordings from a smart home device that was active during a murder as evidence. 

Concerns and Safety

Many people observe the privacy concerns with the extensive amount of information, including personal information, that can be gathered without one’s knowledge. A rising concern is that large databases with personal user information create bigger impacts if those companies suffer from data breaches and leave such data exposed. The data that internet users unknowingly generate every second when collected, over time, can be an extremely valuable asset that others are willing to pay money for.

Data Purchasing

Data brokers are individuals or companies that collect, buy, analyze, and sell personal data to clients within a large range of industries. The General Data Protection Regulation law states that data collection must fall under a specified legal basis, and that explicit consent is required to store users’ data. However, data brokers find loopholes within this law to collect and sell information. 

Adding to this, there is a lack of a federal law that allows consumers to opt out of data collection, as opposed to the implementation of this type of law within certain states (eg. the California Consumer Privacy Act) or certain countries (eg. the General Data Protection Regulation). These laws cover the idea of user autonomy over their data by allowing users to ask a company to remove their information from a database at any time. 

Managing Footprints

Despite the lack of federal protection, there are ways for users to be aware of and minimize their digital footprint. The act of searching up one’s name or username can give a good idea of what kind of information is publicly available for employers or other people to find. Checking privacy and cookie settings on applications or websites can provide a more secure user experience. Being mindful of the information being shared on social media, unsafe websites, or on public Wi-Fi is crucial for keeping sensitive information away from prying eyes. Deleting old social media profiles or other accounts lessens the chance that the information of those accounts could be exposed in a data breach. 

The Future

Throughout the history of the internet, there has been a global lesson learned about sharing sensitive information on the internet such as one’s full name, date of birth, or address. Yet, the amount of data being posted and collected by or about children is higher than ever. Parents post many photos of their children throughout various stages of their lives, and when the children are given devices of their own, they are more social media-oriented than the generation before them. This leads to children having bigger digital footprints as they enter adulthood, and the implications of this are not yet clear. Even current teens are witnessing the effects of a negative digital footprint; Scholarships are known to ask applicants to submit a social media profile, which can lead to the scholarship being denied based on the content of the profile.


The concern involving one’s digital footprint is ultimately up to each individual’s comfort level with their data being shared. There are practical uses of data within the field of technology, but there are also potential risks associated with digital footprints to be considered. There are levels of sensitivity when it comes to sharing information online. Personal information should always be shared with caution on social media, while clicks on a website may not have much importance if stored in a database. It is always important to keep in mind that cautionary tales have real consequences and that everyone should be mindful of their internet presence. 

Works Cited

“Children’s Commissioner’s Report Calls on Internet Giants and Toy Manufacturers to Be Transparent about Collection of Children’s Data.” Children’s Commissioner for England, Children’s Commissioner for England, 8 Nov. 2018, www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/news/childrens-commissioners-report-calls-on-internet-giants-and-toy-manufacturers-to-be-transparent-about-collection-of-childrens-data/.

Dalgord, Chelsea. “Cybervetting: The Hiring Process in the Digital Age.” Wayne State Web Team RSS, Wayne State University, 7 Dec. 2013, blogs.wayne.edu/informationpolicy/2012/12/07/cybervetting-the-hiring-process-in-the-digital-age-2/.

“Data Broker.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_broker.

“Digital Footprint.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Oct. 2023, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_footprint.

“Digital Footprints.” Forensic’s Blog, Forensic’s blog, 28 May 2022, forensicfield.blog/digital-footprints/.

Fani, Anthony. “Harmful Digital Footprint Impacts That Parents Should Know About.” FOSI, UK Registered Charity no. 1095268, 29 July 2015, www.fosi.org/good-digital-parenting/harmful-digital-footprint-impacts-teens.

“Knowledgebase.” ICTEA, ICTEA, www.ictea.com/cs/index.php?rp=%2Fknowledgebase%2F2235%2FiQue-es-un-rastro-digital-o-huella-en-Internet.html&language=english. Accessed 2 Nov. 2023.

Kuhn, Kristine M. “The Business of Cybervetting.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 9 Sept. 2022, www.cambridge.org/core/journals/industrial-and-organizational-psychology/article/abs/business-of-cybervetting/99F4C2B10EA87F14470A3FEA12A6AC31.

Neschke, Sabine. “What Your Digital Footprint Reveals and Who Is Watching.” Bipartisan Policy Center, Bipartisan Policy Center, 1 Dec. 2022, bipartisanpolicy.org/blog/digital-footprint/.

Nguyen, Sara J.  J. “What Are Internet Cookies and How Are They Used?” Edited by Catherine McNally, All About Cookies, All About Cookies, 28 July 2023, allaboutcookies.org/what-is-a-cookie.Rodgers, Matthew J. “Cybersecurity Background Check: Guide for Employers [2023].” Iprospectcheck, iprospectcheck, 11 Aug. 2023, iprospectcheck.com/cybersecurity-background-check/.