Have you ever googled yourself? That is, have you ever gone to google.com or another search engine like bing.com and typed in your own name? No, it’s not just a habit for narcissists—it’s one way to discover at least some of what cyber criminals, potential employers, advertisers, and others can find out about you online.
This online information is also called your digital footprint, and it can include photos, social media posts and comments, videos, and much more. Some of your footprint is likely to be active, meaning that you have purposely shared the information at sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook. But other data is passive, meaning it was posted without your knowledge.
The really scary thing is that your digital footprint includes more than just information from this year. In fact, the content may go back a decade and more, including data from your high school, early jobs, college, previous jobs, and more. And it lasts after death, with obituaries and death notices available online for cyber criminals to peruse, potentially stealing names, birth dates, hometowns, and other information to support identity theft.
There are several steps you can take to reduce your digital footprint and protect your privacy. One is to spend less time and share less data online—the fewer online services you sign up for and the less you use social media, the less data is likely to end up online.
If you choose to continue using social media, be sure to look closely at the privacy controls. It’s a good idea to remove personal information such as your birthday, address, employment information, and even the names of family members, which could be used to guess answers to security questions.
When you conduct an online search of your name, you may turn up other surprises—old articles in which you were mentioned, sites that reveal your address or phone number, and much more. It can be difficult to delete this information, but you can approach each company individually and make the request, or hire a privacy consultant to help.
The critical first step is to know that you almost certainly have a digital footprint. Find out what it looks like today, so you can take steps to avoid identity theft and retain at least some degree of privacy, even in the digital era.