Digital Footprint: Think Before You Click

March 29, 2023

As a trusted fiduciary, we understand the importance of protecting our clients' assets and ensuring their financial security. However, in today's digital age, financial security goes beyond just securing your bank account and investments. It's also about protecting your digital footprint. No, when you hit the red X in the corner of your screen and turn off your computer/phone, your online activity doesn’t go away. Your digital footprint refers to the trail of information that you leave behind whenever you use the internet. This includes everything from the websites you visit, the apps you use, the searches you make, the messages you send, and the social media platforms you engage with. In fact, the Chinese-owned social media company TikTok just testified in Congress last week regarding the digital data, or footprint, that they gather from users and how that information is shared. In this blog, we will recap that hearing, then explain how your digital footprint is used and the potential dangers it poses. We will also provide tips on how you can limit your digital footprint to protect yourself from harm.

Governments across the globe have been aware of the concept of digital footprint for a while now. In 2018, the EU made effective the General Data Protection Regulation, or more commonly known as the Cookie Law. Cookies refer to the information companies gather from you when you visit their website. The Cookie Law is a piece of privacy legislation that requires websites to get consent from visitors to store or retrieve their information. The US does not have a similar privacy law in effect at the federal level, however, certain states do have privacy legislation in place that provide similar protection. Almost all US websites and social media, including Meta, Twitter, and Snapchat, collect your cookies. So why did Congress haul TikTok in front of them to testify?

In short, TikTok’s parent, ByteDance, is a Chinese-owned company, and China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law states, “Any organization or citizen shall support, assist, and cooperate with state intelligence work in accordance with the law, and maintain the secrecy of all knowledge of state intelligence work.” This implies that The Chinese Communist Party has the ability to access the digital footprint of more than 40% of Americans- the percentage of the country that engages with TikTok. If we assume that TikTok gathers user data at a similar level to most US companies, you can see how this could be a potential implication for national security. TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew testified saying, “Let me state this unequivocally: ByteDance is not an agent of China or any other country.” However, this did nothing but lead to skepticism from our lawmakers. Unfortunately, the hearing only resulted in more questions than it answered. The Biden Administration’s current stance is that unless a resolution is reached, ByteDance must sell its stake in TikTok or it will be banned from use in the country.  

It's easy to understand the danger of a rival country such as China having so much data on American citizens, but what about all of the American companies that store and use your personal data on a daily basis. The use of your digital footprint can indeed enhance your online experience. If websites remember you, you can hop onto your favorite social media without re-entering your account information, or you can continue the online shopping spree you started the other week without having to add all of the items back into your online “cart.” Instead of general advertisements that you may not be interested in, the ads you see are tailored to what you normally click on and buy. It can be nice to be saved a few unnecessary clicks, but is convenience really worth compromising your privacy? Personally, I feel uneasy knowing that my data is gathered, stored, and sold so that companies can make a bigger profit. Privacy aside, having a substantial digital footprint can pose many potential dangers. For example, hackers and cybercriminals can use your digital footprint to gather information about you, such as your email address, phone number, and home address. They can then use this information to launch phishing attacks, identity theft, and other malicious activities. Additionally, your digital footprint can be used by potential employers or colleges to evaluate you, which can affect your job prospects or educational opportunities.

So, how can you limit your digital footprint? Firstly, be mindful of the websites you visit and the apps you download. Oftentimes, when you visit a website there is a big pop-up that says, ”Click here to enable all cookies.” Consider taking a few seconds to click the tiny button below that that says, “Click here to choose what cookies you want enabled.” Unfortunately, you often aren’t given a choice. For those concerned about being denied future employment or educational opportunities- be mindful about what you post online. A few minutes of fame isn’t worth losing potential career opportunities. Think before you click- be sure to read the terms and conditions and privacy policies before signing up or providing any personal information. Use strong and unique passwords for each of your accounts and consider using a password manager to keep track of them. Limit the amount of personal information you share online, such as your full name, date of birth, and home address. Consider even using a pseudonym or nickname where possible.

Another way to limit your digital footprint is through certain softwares or through social media management. It may be worth it to use a virtual private network (VPN) when browsing the internet. A VPN encrypts your internet connection and hides your IP address, making it difficult for hackers and other third parties to track your online activity. Additionally, consider using ad-blocking software to prevent advertisers from tracking your online behavior and displaying targeted ads. Regularly review your social media privacy settings and limit the amount of personal information that is visible to others. Be cautious when accepting friend requests or connecting with strangers, as they may not have good intentions. A private account doesn’t do much to protect your privacy if you don’t personally know your “friends.” Consider deleting old accounts that you no longer use, as they can still contain personal information that can be used against you. These actions may not eliminate but will certainly reduce your digital footprint.

In conclusion, protecting your digital footprint is an essential aspect of maintaining your financial security in today's digital age. By limiting the amount of personal information you share online and taking proactive steps to protect your online activity, you can increase your privacy and reduce your risk of falling victim to cybercrime and other malicious activities. At DWM, we take the protection of our clients' assets seriously, and we encourage you to do the same when it comes to your digital footprint.

Detterbeck Wealth Management is a fee-only financial planning / wealth management company with offices located in Palatine, IL (Chicago area) and Charleston, SC areas serving clients locally and across the country. To contact us about setting up an appointment, please see our contact us page