21 Powerful Ways to Reduce Your Digital Footprint
Just like that overstuffed closet you’ve been avoiding, your digital life can get cluttered with unnecessary information that doesn’t serve you anymore.
And frankly, it might even get embarrassing. (Let’s not mention the photo you let someone take from you while peeing in front of your “flex-car” or that Karaoke video, shall we?)
In this age of constant digital activity, our online presence has grown larger and, in many ways, more unruly.
And just like that dreaded closet, it might be time for a serious clear-out.
That’s where my today’s article comes in.
I will discuss…
- What is a digital footprint
- 11 risks of a large digital footprint
- Why it is important to reduce your digital footprint: 7 benefits
- How to reduce your digital footprint (21 tactics and tips)
- How to delete 99.9% of your digital footprint (can you?)
- Nine digital footprint checker tools
Reading this article, you may also find how minimalism has some overlaps and practical applications in cybersecurity…
What Is a Digital Footprint?
Every website you visit, every ‘like’ you click, every photo you upload, every purchase you make, and every comment you leave behind is like dropping a breadcrumb.
And before you know it, you’ve left a trail. It’s a digital trail that can tell a story about who you are, what you like, and what you do online.
This is your digital footprint.
Now, just as footprints in the snow can tell someone if you were running or walking, barefoot or wearing boots.
Similarly, your digital footprint can reveal a lot about you. You could compare it with a digital diary, chronicling your online activities and behaviors.
Unlike footprints in the snow, more snow or a temperature increase can make it disappear. However, these digital footprints stick around.
So compared to the physical world, it’s more like walking through a fresh concrete layer about to dry, which holds your footprints “forever.”
A research paper from the Carnegie Mellon University states that 59% of internet users find it impossible to go completely anonymous online.
That’s because our digital footprints are embedded in the virtual world, much like a time capsule, albeit one that’s constantly updating.
11 Risks of a Large Digital Footprint
Want to understand the benefits of reducing your digital footprint?
Then, it’s essential to understand what a large digital footprint can do to you. It carries various risks I will discuss in this section.
1) Privacy Invasion
Online platforms can track your activities and behaviors, using this data to learn about your preferences and habits (source).
Have you ever noticed those online ads that seem to read your mind (called retargeting ads, by the way)?
It’s like they know what you were just thinking about buying. Why is that?
Every click, search, and website visit can be tracked and analyzed to learn about your preferences, habits, and even future intentions.
In my opinion, this is one of the smaller risks. If I have to see ads, I prefer seeing relevant ads and not something irrelevant, which is more annoying.
However, it all depends on what else these platforms do with your data besides using it for targeted ads.
2) Identity Theft
The larger your digital footprint, the more information is available to potential identity thieves.
They can piece together your details, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, and voila—they can impersonate you.
A famous example that even ended up in a Netflix documentary film is the “Tinder Swindler.”
It’s about Shimon Hayut (a scammer), who posed as a wealthy businessman on Tinder and “honey-trapped” women with his pretentious lifestyle.
Once he built trust, the money ask started. He used pretexts like business rivals were after him, so he would need credit cards and loans.
3) Reputation Damage
Everything you do or say online leaves a mark, and these digital footprints can impact your reputation.
For instance, a spur-of-the-moment post or a heated comment can haunt you years later.
Job recruiters, college admissions officers, and even potential dates might take a peek at your digital past.
Creating a larger digital footprint makes tracking your activities and behaviors easier for cyberstalkers.
They can glean information about your daily routines, favorite hangouts, and who you interact with regularly.
However, this is rather harmless. The next level is when a cyberstalker makes hoax bomb threats, distributes child abuse imagery, and combines this also with identity theft.
The latter actually happened. For instance, the 25-year-old Lin pleaded guilty to this and was sentenced to 17 years of jail time, as is reported in this article.
5) Phishing and Scams
The more information about you available online, the easier it is for cybercriminals to target you with personalized scams.
You might receive a fraudulent email that seems to be from a trusted source, urging you to click a link or share sensitive information. And because these messages appear so convincing, it’s easy to fall into the trap.
6) Psychological Impact
A research paper published in 2022 by De Gruyter Mouton analyzed the effects of mobile social media privacy concerns and perceived stress.
In the study, the researchers found an association between the two.
So, a large digital footprint might also add to your stress levels.
7) Data Breaches
The larger your digital footprint, the more data you have spread across different platforms.
And if one of these platforms suffers a data breach?
In that case, your personal information could end up in the wrong hands.
It’s akin to leaving copies of your house keys in various places—you never know who might stand in your bedroom one day.
8) Unwanted Social Consequences
A larger digital footprint means more visibility and exposure. This isn’t always a good thing.
Remember, not everyone interprets information the same way.
Something you post might be misunderstood or taken out of context, leading to unexpected social consequences.
It’s similar to speaking on a stage—the more people in the audience, the more chances for misinterpretation.
In addition and related to this… There is this common saying (only anecdotal evidence) that not everyone you meet will like you, no matter what you do.
So consequently, the more people you meet (online), the more will not like you. Ten percent of 1000 is more than ten percent of 100 in nominal numbers.
9) Implications for Future Opportunities
Future employers, educational institutions, or other organizations could examine your digital footprint, which may affect your prospects.
You can also consider your digital footprint a sprawling mural that potential employers, university admission officers, or partners could interpret to form an impression about you.
A less-than-flattering digital history might overshadow your qualifications or positive attributes and, thus, negatively impact opportunities that come your way.
10) Legal Consequences
The risk of legal consequences concerns the potential fallout from sharing or engaging with content online that infringes upon laws and regulations.
For instance, sharing copyrighted material without permission, engaging in online defamation, or inadvertently sharing illegal content could land you in hot water.
Therefore, each digital footprint you leave behind, much like a signature on a contract, carries a degree of responsibility and potential legal implications.
Why It Is Important to Reduce Your Digital Footprint: 7 Benefits
After discussing the risks of a larger digital footprint, it’s easy to see the benefits of reducing it.
Just find the contrary to the earlier risks. And you get the benefits and why reducing your digital footprint is important.
To sum them up, they are the following…
Increased Privacy: The less information you share online, the more private and secure your life becomes.
It’s comparable to closing your curtains to prying eyes, providing a sense of security and peace.
Enhanced Security: With fewer data points for cybercriminals to latch onto, you reduce the risk of identity theft, phishing, and cyberstalking.
Think of it as having fewer keys to your house in circulation and, thus, fewer people that can end up in your bedroom.
Improved Online Reputation: By being more mindful about what you post online, you can control your online image more effectively and thus reducing your implications for future opportunities and your risk of legal consequences.
Greater Control Over Personal Data: When you limit your digital footprint, you decide what information is available about you online and thus have better control over your personal data.
Reduced Information Overload: Fewer accounts, fewer emails, and fewer posts to deal with can significantly reduce stress and enhance your mental well-being.
Efficient Use of Time: Less time spent managing multiple online accounts and sorting through heaps of digital data means more time for productive and enjoyable activities.
Here we enter the world of the benefits of digital minimalism and decluttering.
Positive Environmental Impact: Using less data can reduce the energy required to power data centers, thus contributing to environmental sustainability.
How to Reduce Your Digital Footprint (21 Tactics & Tips)
Now you know about the risks of a large digital footprint and the benefits of reducing it.
So you may wonder how you can do it.
And here are 21 tactics and tips you may want to follow to achieve this goal.
1) Cleaning Out the Virtual Closet – Delete Unnecessary Accounts
Over the years, you’ve probably created numerous accounts on different platforms. Some of them you might not even remember.
It’s time to identify these accounts and delete those you no longer use.
2) Turn Down the Volume – Limit What You Share
You want to be more mindful about what you’re sharing online. Do you need to announce every detail of your day or personal life?
The less you share, the smaller your footprint becomes.
It’s like speaking softly in a loud room, still communicating but causing less disturbance.
3) The Digital Doorman – Use Privacy Settings
Review and adjust your privacy settings on all platforms you use.
Like the doorman who ensures only guests can enter your house, these settings can limit who sees your posts and what data is collected about you.
4) Disappearing Ink – Delete Old Posts and Comments
Posts and comments you’ve made could contribute to your digital footprint.
You might want to review and delete these, particularly if they contain personal information or views you no longer hold.
Imagine it as writing in disappearing ink.
5) Invisible Manoeuvres – Use Private Browsing Modes
Want to move unseen through the digital landscape?
Your activity isn’t stored the same way when you surf the web in private browsing or incognito mode.
You could also take this up a notch and use the Tor-Browser.
6) Silent Footsteps – Opt Out of Data Collection
Many services collect data about your activities.
If they offer the option to opt out, take it. It’s like wearing digital soft-soled shoes that leave less trace.
7) The Strong Silent Type – Be Cautious with Personal Details
Like carrying only necessary items in your backpack during a hike or traveling the world, avoid giving out personal details like your email address, phone number, or home address unless necessary (the exception is, of course, your email address for my newsletter).
8) Travel Light – Limit Use of Third-Party Apps
Be mindful of what apps you’re using, particularly those that require access to personal data or social media accounts.
The fewer such apps you use, the better.
9) Play the Detective – Google Yourself
This helps you understand what information about you is publicly available.
Once you know this, you can take steps to remove or limit this information. Consider it as doing some detective work on your own digital life.
10) Take the Scenic Route – Use Alternative Search Engines
Some privacy-focused search engines, like DuckDuckGo, don’t track your search history, helping to reduce your digital footprint.
This is similar to choosing a path less traveled but equally effective.
11) Keep It on the Down Low – Use VPNs
Do you want to move through the digital world as if you were in a cloaked vehicle?
In this case, a Virtual Private Network (VPN) can help. It masks your IP address and encrypts your internet connection, making your online activity much more private.
12) Unsubscribe – Limit Email Subscriptions
Consider unsubscribing from newsletters or other email communications you no longer find valuable. This reduces the likelihood of your email address being shared with others.
13) Going Incognito – Use Anonymous Email Services
For instances when you need to provide an email address but want to avoid spam or protect your email, consider using an anonymous email service.
14) Secure Your Sanctuary – Regularly Update and Secure Devices
Keep your devices and any software you use up to date.
You want to regularly update your software, like reinforcing your doors and windows. This often includes important security patches.
15) Don’t Leave a Trace – Regularly Clear Browser Cookies
Cookies can track your browsing habits and gather data about you.
Regularly clearing them helps to reduce this type of digital footprint.
16) Curtailing Social Media – Reduce Social Media Usage
The less time you spend on social media, the less data these platforms can collect about you.
Consider it akin to spending less time in a bustling market square, thereby drawing less attention to yourself.
Related to that, you may also be interested in reading my article about how to reduce your screen time.
17) Reading the Fine Print – Understand Terms of Service
Before signing up for a service, ensure you understand their terms, particularly regarding data usage and privacy policies.
I know this is boring and I am sure you haven’t read many of them like me.
18) Stop the Presses – Limit Online Shopping
Every time you shop online, you leave a personal and financial information trail.
Limiting online purchases or using privacy-focused payment methods can help reduce this.
Here are a few examples of the latter:
- Prepaid cards
- Using privacy.com
- Gift cards
- Money orders
- Paypal (not anonymous but adds a layer of privacy by acting as a middleman)
- Mobile payment apps
19) Passwords are Key – Use Strong, Unique Password
This won’t reduce the data you leave online, but it will help protect it from being misused. It’s like using a robust lock for your digital valuables.
20) Disconnect to Connect – Digital Detox
Occasionally, take a complete break from all digital devices.
This gives you a breather and halts all data generation during that period. It’s one of the principles of digital minimalism I discussed in this guide.
21) Hidden Meanings – Limit Use of Public Wi-Fi
Public Wi-Fi networks are often less secure, making it easier for others to intercept your data. This can be done, for example, with a Wi-Fi Sniffer.
If you must use public Wi-Fi, a VPN is a good idea.
How to Delete 99.9% of Your Digital Footprint (Can You?)
Are you dreaming of tabula rasa? Not just reducing your digital footprint but deleting 99.9% of it?
This is understandable; I played with this thought several times.
However, it’s a significant task that may not be completely achievable.
Because the digital world is interconnected, and you don’t know how data is stored and shared across various platforms.
It also depends on how much of a footprint you’ve created already in the first place.
However, besides the things you can do to reduce your digital footprint, you may need additional help for an almost complete deletion.
This is where service providers and apps come in handy that offer various options to delete your digital footprints, such as the following…
Since all of the above providers are focused on only a few areas of digital footprint deletion, you may need to combine them to approach a 99.9% deletion.
9 Digital Footprint Checker Tools
Ending this article, I will also leave you with nine free and paid digital footprint checker tools you may use in combination with the earlier mentioned ones.
- Google Search: Search for your name
- Google Alerts: Set up an alert for your name
- Facebook: Check your profile from your friends’ perspective by going to account→menu→privacy settings→view settings→preview my profile
- Twitter Search: search again for your name
- Salt Agency
This article has been reviewed by our editorial team. It has been approved for publication per our editorial policy.