by Justin Boyle
If you’ve scratched your head over suggestions to manage your “digital footprint,” you aren’t the only one.
A surprisingly large percentage of people have never even heard the phrase, let alone thought about how to manage theirs responsibly. Among students, the percentage is probably higher. We’ll talk about ways you can help students understand and manage their digital footprints before they get themselves in trouble.
The Definition Of A Digital Footprint
Simply put, a digital footprint is the record or trail left by the things you do online. Your social media activity, the info on your personal website, your browsing history, your online subscriptions, any photo galleries and videos you’ve uploaded — essentially, anything on the Internet with your name on it. Digital natives like today’s students rarely think twice about putting their names on things online, so their footprints can be pretty wide.
Luckily for us all, most of the major sources of personal information can be tweaked so we share only certain things with the general public. There are even some third-party bonus tools available to manage the parts of our digital footprints we might not know were there.
If you want to show students their digital footprint (or take a peek at your own) the personal info search engine Pipl.com is a great resource. Sometimes just seeing the breadth of info about us that exists online is enough to spur us to action.
1. Use Privacy Settings
Let’s talk Facebook, shall we? Chances are pretty good that your students can be counted among the 1.3 billion monthly active users of the social media giant, and there’s practically no other website that contains such a breadth and depth of personal information.
Encouraging students to put all of their social media accounts, including Facebook, on a short leash might be the most important step toward helping them manage their digital footprint. Look into Facebook’s proprietary privacy tips or get the works from Lifehacker.com with it’s “Always Up-to-Date Guide to Managing Your Facebook Privacy,” then inform students about the steps they can take. Better yet, just pass the links along.
Complete privacy on Twitter is simple — you just choose to protect your tweets under “security and privacy” on the account settings page — but encouraging students to do so might do more harm than good. Some teachers have gotten great results using Twitter in education, and a class full of students with protected tweets might interfere with that.
2. Keep A List Of Accounts
Then delete the ones you no longer use. That myspace page you signed up for? Don’t just forget about it–find it and delete it.
3. Don’t Overshare
Perhaps the best tip for helping students maintain privacy on Twitter is one that can be applied across the whole spectrum of social networking tools: Don’t overshare. As much of an alien concept as it may be to students these days, the only sure-fire way to avoid digital footprint trouble is for them to keep quiet about anything they wouldn’t want to share with everyone in town.
This includes usernames, aliases, passwords, last names, full-names-as-usernames, pictures, addresses, and other important information.
4. Use A Password Keeper
This is more of a security thing, but the worst kind of footprint is the one you didn’t make that contains all of your sensitive information. It’s too much work to remember 50 different passwords, and every site has their own unique rules. Until someone solves this problem, the best solution is likely a password keeper
5. Google Yourself
You may be surprised what you find.
6. Monitor Linking Accounts
When you link your facebook or twitter account to that new site (whatever site that might be), you may not realize–or care at the moment–what you’re giving it access to. It’s usually safest to use a secondary email address to sign-up for new sites rather than granting this kind of access.
7. Use A Secondary Email
Whether you’re communicating with someone new, or signing up for a new social media platform, it can be useful to have a secondary email address.
8. You Don’t Need 12 Email Addresses
That said, you don’t need 12. Keep it manageable.
9. Sending Is Like Publishing–Forever
Every time you send a message, post, or picture, you’re publishing it the same way CNN does a news story. And the internet never forgets.
10. Understand That Searches Are Social
There’s another side to your digital footprint, too — it’s not always information that you choose to make public. Remember: Privacy controls or no privacy controls, Facebook still records and uses every scrap of information it gets to better determine its users’ marketing demographics.
Google pulls the same trick with search and browsing habits. If a student is logged into their Google account, the service tracks every keyword they search, every Web page they visit and every time they visit Youtube.
There are ways, however, to control the bits of deep data that we leave strewn around. First of all, even though Google is practically an official synonym for “Web search,” it isn’t actually the only game in town. Less profit-motivated search engines like DuckDuckGo.com and Ixquick.com may take a little getting used to, but they do make explicit policy of protecting users’ browsing privacy.
11. Use Digital Tools To Manage Your Footprint
A host of browser extensions and app add-ons can also limit the surreptitious capture of personal information. Disconnect (Disconnect.me), DoNotTrackMe (Abine.com) and Ghostery (Ghostery.com) are examples of cross-platform extensions that block tracking cookies and give users control over site scripts.
There are also some extreme measures. Browsing from behind a virtual private network, or VPN, puts a layer of thick fog between online activity and real-world identity. If even that isn’t enough for your suddenly privacy-hungry students, there’s also the nuclear option.
You may have heard of Tor, the multi-layered proxy client that’s a go-to for anyone looking to access the fabled Deep Web. By routing your IP address through multiple proxies, Tor protects users from anyone anywhere ever knowing who they are or what they’re looking at.
Of course, full online anonymity would also require students to avoid all login-based media (including app stores like Google Play), which can be a harder task than they’re ready to accept. It may also be important to remind them that while we’re not browsing in a vacuum and we’re very rarely actually anonymous, most of our deep data is probably pretty benign.
Just make sure to let them know that everything that they post, tweet, comment or like is going down on their permanent record. Honestly, everything. That ought to get them thinking, at least.
Justin Boyle is a writer and multimedia designer who lives and works in Austin, Texas. He contributes to several websites, including OnlineSchools.com; image attribution flickr user penbentley and kyteacher; What To Tell Your Students About Monitoring Their Digital Footprints