What is Your Digital Footprint? Privacy Versus Business
While many consumers within the U.S. may have some understanding of the ways in which they can be tracked via the location settings within their smartphone, as well as through popular social media websites such as Twitter and Instagram, many people are still not cognizant of the multitude of ways in which digital technology can be used to infringe on the personal privacy of a particular individual. To this point, any person around the world that uses online or internet services in any capacity will leave behind a trail of personal data that is known as a digital footprint. Any time that an individual uses an online website, creates a post on social media, or logs into their digital bank account, they will contribute to this digital footprint. To put it another way, all information that an online user knowingly leaves on the world wide web will constitute their active digital footprint.
Passive digital footprints
On the other hand, any consumer that has experienced a data breach or read a news story about a similar situation that has happened to another online user will know that criminals and bad actors can collect digital information without proper authorization or consent. Nevertheless, online users also have their personal information collected unknowingly in less nefarious ways, such as online tracking scripts that can be used to record a users behavior on a particular business website, as well as internet cookies that are designed to provide users with an optimal website browsing experience, among other things. To this point, data that is collected from online users without their knowledge will constitute their passive digital footprint.
To illustrate this point further, have you ever wondered why you see advertisements on social media for a service or product you read about on a popular search engine like Google? Most consumers will not be actively searching for these advertisements. Nevertheless, consumers are still shown such advertisements on a daily basis, and a large reason for this is the passive digital footprints that all online users are essentially assigned without their knowledge. On top of this, there are also businesses that will both buy and sell the information of consumers in bulk, with the goal of using this data to drive targeted advertising campaigns.
Invasions of privacy
As the global interconnectedness of our current online landscape is a relatively new advancement with respect to the history of the human species, the manner in which personal privacy should be protected as it relates to the online space is also a matter of intense debate. On the one hand, business owners argue that they use the personal information of consumers to provide people with products and services that they will find most convenient and useful for them. When compared to any other point in human history, a person who desires to purchase a particular product in the 21st century can easily uncover a trove of relevant information in a matter of seconds.
However, despite the convenience of online shopping and internet advertising, these services invariably come at the expense of personal privacy. Due to these facts, some nations around the world have passed wide-reaching legislation for the purpose of regulating the ways in which businesses and organizations are permitted to collect, process, retain, transfer, and ultimately disclose personal information. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is perhaps the best example of such legislation, as businesses that serve customers within EU member states are required to adhere to the various provisions of the law, lest they face hefty fines and disciplinary action.
Concerns about digital footprints
While it is natural to feel concerned about the ways in which businesses collect personal data about their customers, it is important to remember that most companies and organizations do not have the size or scope to create a complete online profile for every single customer they serve. For instance, a business that sells athletic sneakers will undoubtedly want to gather customer information that relates to shoe sizes, financial information, and sports preferences, but they will not be able to collect every piece of data that pertains to a particular consumer. This being said, while there will obviously be cybercriminals that are looking to steal personal information for explicit uses, most businesses are simply looking to drive profit when obtaining information about the general population.
To provide further proof of this fact, a study that was conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2019 regarding the experiences that members of the general public had with targeted advertising campaigns showed the manner in which such advertisements can be limited. For example, the study found that 60% of people who were polled found that targeted advertisements that had seen when browsing the web did indeed mirror their personal interests. What’s more, the study also found that 64% of people who viewed such targeted advertisements had some understanding of “what personal data is being used to create targeted advertisements, with 14% saying they understand a great deal.”
While the idea of a digital footprint can elicit different emotions and feelings depending on the individual, the inescapable reality of the matter is that anyone who uses the internet at any point in time will create such a footprint, be it active or passive. This notion is best encapsulated by the phrase the internet never forgets, as anything that a consumer posts online can be accessed at one point or another, even after a significant amount of time has passed. In spite of this, many nations around the globe are beginning to question the influence that big tech companies have on the online world. Subsequently, the ways in which businesses and organizations can collect information about consumers are still subject to change in the near future.