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Jobs in the Time of Corona: Digital Footprints and Virtual Privacy - How to declutter an online presence

October 23, 2020

What exactly is a digital footprint, and is it possible to leave no trace online?

A digital footprint is basically a trail of all your online activity. It includes personal information that you provide online - such as your IP address, login information, records of your online purchases, social media posts, and your comments on digital articles. It is a dynamic and ever-changing thing, as are online privacy laws and disclosure statements from websites regarding what is done with the information they have about their users.

It is surprising for many applicants to learn that it is now common for potential employers to search for applicants online and view much more than just their social media accounts. And even within a user’s social circle, the information available about them online—whether it is true, false, misleading, or posted without the individual’s knowledge—impacts their reputation and public image, for better or worse.

Know Your Footprint

It is valuable to conduct a more in-depth search of yourself online to see what is out there. Beyond simply Googling your name, here are some suggestions for you to find yourself online:

  • Doing a Google search for any usernames you frequently use
  • Checking for saved log-in information in browsers (this will be found in “settings”)
  • Use the Wayback Machine for a complete archive of your online history (and request that they delete it)

Clean Up Your Footprint

Knowledge is power, as the adage goes; after a clearer picture is formed of what your digital footprint looks like, cleaning it up is a more effective process. To do a deep clean of a digital footprint as well as take some preventative measures, try these options:

  • Remove personal information from data broker websites
  • Delete all old emails and unused email accounts
  • Turn off location settings on mobile devices
  • Clear Google search history
  • Use the search engine DuckDuckGo rather than Google, Bing, etc.
  • Use a VPN (virtual private network)

Aim for a Well-Managed Footprint

Generally speaking, it is not possible to completely erase one’s digital footprint, and it is not recommended to try, as the measures necessary to do so are extreme. There are also many valid reasons to keep an online presence. It is helpful to think of a digital footprint as an extension of the offline self. Rather than attempting to scrub away all data and leave no trace, it is more effective to be intentional about keeping a positive and well-managed footprint. There are several quick, easy, and low-cost strategies to go about this:

  • Thoughtfully adjust privacy settings on social media accounts
  • Delete old and/or unused profiles
  • Talk with friends and family about what is and isn’t okay to tag on their social media
  • Manage settings so approval of tagged posts is required
  • Read privacy disclosure agreements on websites, and be thoughtful about whether or not they align with values and needs (don’t agree to anything that doesn’t feel right)
  • Clear cookies and browser history regularly
  • Use antivirus software

Erase Your Footprint?

As suggested above, erasing your digital footprint is not advisable. This is because a lack of online presence can send the unintended message to an employer that you aren’t tech savvy or that you may be reclusive, for example. This may not be entirely fair, but with no evidence to the contrary, it is hard to argue (and you may not have an opportunity to make your case). However, if you prefer to delete your digital footprint rather than simply cleaning up and maintaining a healthy digital footprint, there are ways to remove the bulk of information out there:

  • Delete all apps (be sure to delete the account within the app and not just the app itself)
  • Delete all social media accounts
  • Delete all emails and email accounts (dig through old messages for potentially important documents or information that you can back up)
  • Delete all online accounts and subscriptions (including entertainment subscriptions such as Netflix); There is a website called AccountKiller that can do a mass delete
  • Transfer any online bill payments to paper

So long as you keep a watchful eye on your accounts and online presence, learn to keep boundaries with friends and family about what is and isn’t okay to tag you in, and do regular maintenance of clearing cookies and search histories, it’s entirely possible to have a tidy digital footprint.

For more information about how to go about the steps suggested in this post, see the full article, a list of helpful links related to these methods above, as well as more in-depth information about this topic in the Advice on Demand - LinkedIn & Social Presence folder in the Resource Library on Career Connect.

by Jessica Peterson, Career Services Office Graduate Assistant

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