“Digital footprint” refers to the body of data that exists as a result of an individual’s actions and communications online.
The contents of one’s digital footprint is so important that it can impact upon an individual’s chances of getting a job, or on their personal relationships. And that is why for many years now there have been companies who are willing – for a price – to tidy up your online footprint.
Online reputation management is the practice of trying to shape the public perception of an individual (or indeed an organization or institution) by influencing the way that online information about them appears.
(Fertik, Thompson 2015) has written a book about the topic: The reputation economy: how to optimize your digital footprint in a world where your reputation is your most valuable asset. Penguin Random House.
What I wonder, though, is the fairness of this. Reputation management can be expensive. It isn’t simply a question of trying to shape the way information appears as a one off exercise. A reputation management company might have successfully got some embarrassing content to appear far lower down the search engine rankings than it did before, to the point where it has to all intents and purposes disappeared. But what happens when those search engines tweak their algorithm, and the story/stories appear more prominently once again.
It raises the question as to whether it is only people who are well-off who are able to utilize reputation management companies.
Don’t libraries have an important role in digital literacy training for their users, and more particularly digital privacy literacy training, to help them have a better understanding of how their digital footprint is created, what the implications are, and what can be done to minimize the data that is gathered; or to manage it more effectively if it has already been gathered.
86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints – ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email
55% of internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations or the government.
Source: Pew Foundation American Life Project.
A video entitled “Inside the mind of google” which is dated 2009 says that Google has become a vacuum cleaner hoovering up digital data. Even in 2009 they spoke of there being over a billion searches a day. Just think of all of those searches, and how they are leaving a digital footprint. To the point where Google could be described as a database of intentions, because those searches will indicate what you were thinking at any given moment.
As the 2013 report on IFLA trends says “In situations where posting information online effectively surrenders future control over that information, people have to balance their desire to engage, create and communicate against any risks connected with leaving a permanent digital footprint”.
In “Group privacy: new challenges of data technologies”, Luciano Floridi says “We are constantly leaving behind a trail of data, pretty much in the same sense in which we are shedding a huge trail of dead cells”