Step Carefully: Covering Digital Footprint Is Key to Web Privacy
Every time you open a browser to view a Web page, that information is stored on your computer—whether you're shopping online, checking movie listings, or catching up on the latest news.
Windows operating systems store this material in a temporary Internet file or "cache." Web pages may store bits of information about who you are in files called "cookies" on your computer. Your Web browser will store a list of websites you've visited and places you've gone in a history file in your computer—thus creating your digital footprint. Even if you're not online, programs will store histories of the files you've opened, played, or viewed.
Cookies are created to recognize users when they return to a website; they make it possible to offer customized content to a user. Even though cookies make Web use quicker and more convenient, they can be a threat to your privacy if they store sensitive information like your name and password on protected login pages, preferences, account information, and choices you have made on the site. So, even if you clear browser history, cookies—like a map—can show your surfing preferences, habits, passwords, and so forth.
Even if the cookies don't contain such information, they clearly show that you visited the sites from which they came.
Unfortunately, many consumers don't understand the risks of digital footprints.
The problem, as Internet privacy experts have documented, is a growing one. Mary McFadden, writing in a Pew Research report, "Digital Footprints: Online Identity Management and Search in the Age of Transparency," perfectly captured the potential for peril in online ID fraud. "Unlike footprints left in the sand at the beach, our online data trails often stick around long after the tide has gone out," she says.
Few Web users bother to cover those footprints. According to a 2011 123People.com study, only 23% of Internet users say they make a regular practice of reviewing their Web footprint, while 55% say they search using their name to check their online reputations. Even worse, the vast majority of Web users aren't even sure what personal data they're leaving behind on the Web.
How do you leave footprints?
Protect your privacy
Here's how to lessen your digital footprint:
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