Have you ever noticed that when you buy something online (a pair of shoes, for example), all of a sudden you start seeing shoe advertisements on other web pages that you visit? Sometimes for the exact item that you just bought? Most of us are familiar with the term "cookies" (which are little bits of information stored on your computer), but they are also part of a bigger picture out there called your "digital footprint."
Everything you do when you're on the Internet, whether it's just looking at a few web pages, downloading a great recipe for oven-baked mac & cheese, or watching videos, leaves a little trace of your information that can be associated with you. Things that you post or react to on social media sites (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) are huge contributing factors to your footprint and how it is used. Many companies pay for the data gathered by these hosting sites and in turn use it to market additional products or services directly back to you. This is done in the hopes that they can generate more data, more purchases, more posts, so the cycle continues on and on.
Shopping sites often track your Internet usage so they can target specific products to you based on where you've been and what you've seen on other web pages. Social media sites are notorious for using private data for marketing and other business opportunities. Even mainstream sites such as your local news channel, city web page, or library page can keep track of your movements online. Make no mistake - while you're online, everything you do and everywhere you go can be tracked, monitored, and used!
A good experiment to try is to look yourself up on a few different search engines such as Google, Bing, or DuckDuckGo (there are many out there). Chances are you won't be the only "John Smith" that shows up, but after reviewing a few of the results you should be able to narrow things down to you specifically. How do the results look? Did you get any results? No results?
Whether you're happy or unhappy with your results, there are ways to help reduce your footprint out there. Be careful with your posts on social media, maintain strong passwords, and limit your email subscriptions as necessary. Make sure you review your privacy settings on any account that allows you to change them. Sometimes you're asked to provide birth dates, addresses, phone numbers - unless it's a mandatory field that needs to be filled in, just leave it blank.
In today's world, an online presence and social media are a way of life. Being careful about where you go, what you say, and what you do, can go a long way to keeping your private data in your control instead of being used against you. Be careful!