digital footprint
Image source - https://bit.ly/3kfSCyx

This article is written by Surupa Hossain Bhuiyan, pursuing a Diploma in Cyber Law, FinTech Regulations and Technology Contracts from Lawsikho.com.

Introduction

In 1968, J.C.R Licklider – a psychologist and computer scientist in his article/Journal (The Computer as a Communication Device) stated that “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face. That is a rather startling thing to say, but it is our conclusion”. – JCR Licklider 

The world saw a total change and the greatest transformation of all time happened when the Internet was born in 1983. Internet being the fast growing technologies became unfathomably complex behemoth that is central to our lives aided by social media and smart devices too. 

The Global Risks Report 2020 (World Economic Forum) states that “more than 50% of the world’s population is now online, approximately one million people go online for their first time each day, and two-thirds of the global population own a mobile device”. 

What is digital footprint?

When an individual/user’s interacts on the internet, he leaves a trail of information behind every time when they do something online which is known as “digital footprint” by using digital technology. Digital footprint can be delineated as a data of interaction between humans and the cyber world. In its broadest meaning, a digital footprint is the trace of anything recorded by a sensor (Cheng, et al 2017)

The commercial organizations that have online presence also leave digital footprint when they are active on internet but this article will focus only on the importance of individual digital footprint, its expansion and risks associated with it. 

Douglas Rausch (the director of the cyber security program at Bellevue University) states that “As you move through networks, you are leaving a footprint everywhere you go”. A digital footprint is a trail of data which contains an individual’s both private and public data.

How is digital footprint created?

Internet is a cosmos of data so when users’ use internet they leave their digital mark by generating (through) active data (explicit) and passive (implicit) data. There is no harm to produce such data because in today’s world if you don’t have a digital footprint in the upcoming years, you will no longer exist. It is noteworthy that the digital footprint is now known as untapped valuable asset in this 21st Century (like Oil of 18th Century) but the fears of misuse of data for nefarious purposes by unscrupulous people raises the issue of concern.

Production of Active and Passive Data 

When internet users communicate through or uses any social media platform such as Facebook, or make call over telecommunications application by instant messaging, or voice calling, on-line services, or mobile app or sends electronic mail etc. (in the belief that it is private) such explicit act is known as production of active data. 

Whereas, passive data is created when users stopover on web sites, which requires no explicit actions on the user’s part but it can be collected from web browsers or other sources by a third party/data collector for their uses such as by web marketer to protect the level of service and product that the web currently provides for digital marketing or other purposes. Two types of passive participation can be distinguished: (1) data generated by platforms as a by-product of users’ online behavior and (2) data posted by other users but linked to an individual (Micheli, Marina & Lutz, Christoph & Büchi, Moritz. (2018).

How beneficial is digital footprint and for whom?

It is fascinating to know that using internet by indulging into different devices makes different digital footprints such as smart-phones and tablets tend to leave a very different footprint from laptops and desktop computers.

Justice Dr. Syed Refaat Ahmed in his publication (Digital footprint: A Right-Based Perspective, 2020) states that “The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4ir) has created an environment in which disruptive technologies and trends such as Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the way we live and work (as noted by the World Economic Forum in its “Global Risks Report 2020: Insight Report – 15th Edition). And he shares his affirmatory approach on human being to take control and charge of their parallel digital lives in this era as it is vivid that 4IR technologies are going to transmute the economies and societies.

Indeed it is veritably that users operate their devices personally but perform their activity in a gigantic theater which is known as cyberspace (the fifth theatre of warfare according to George Thomas, a senior adviser at PwC Bermuda) that can record and redistribute everything said or done. The trails of the user’s digital footprint are preserved forever on the internet, it is essential in this digital age to use internet responsibly and conscientiously to shape up online reputation. 

Individual user:

Digital footprints come handy and make life easy when an user turn on and start using electronic gadgets /devices without repeatedly logging in or submit personal details to web sites. Besides, it helps to search and explore related affairs by appearing and displaying to get better online experiences which are occasionally beneficial. 

Marketers: 

These data are used by web marketers either in digital marketing for commercial use or other purposes, who want to know about the products that the customers may be interested in and extend to give improved customer service. These analyses of the data give businesses enough insights to advance services. 

Recruiters:

Recruiters use digital footprints for ‘cyber vetting,’ a process whereby the recruiter researches the online activity of applicants to determine their suitability (https://oxfordre.com/communication/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228613-e-125#acrefore-9780190228613-e-125-div1-4)

Law enforcements, computer forensics and private investigators agency: 

Law enforcements agency’s are able to solve crimes by following the digital trails of the criminal and the victim. Digital footprint is an irreplaceable asset for these agencies’ to keep environment safe and prevent crimes by using smart innovative technologies.

Privacy 

It is clear that by accessing in user’s data their whereabouts can easily be known to law enforcement and others. Digital footprint creates a remarkable impact in terms of security, but tracking down every move raises questions about privacy.

The movement of the user data are not only monitored online but also in public spaces too, such as can monitor user’s daily physical movement as there are surveillance camera for safety and security in the city, work place or at home, at shops and shopping mall, etc. It even gets easier if the user uses smart cards besides bank cards. Necessary measures can be taken to some extent to prevent such actions but how water tight is that is a question. On the other hand personal data are being used to generate revenue without user’s knowledge. 

How and where are these digital footprints are stored? 

Digital footprints are stored in different ways according to the type of data even if deleted from the users search history, cookies from the websites, social media, email data, and so forth. There is no such solitary online data depository for the user to open it and see where and what is being stored. Data are stored in a virtual place known as “Cloud” which is not tangible. When the data go in the cloud storage it is actually handed over to the providers, who have these datacenters in a multiple locations, countries, and even continents to store the data. So it is difficult for a general person to understand where the data is stored. But major corporations like Amazon, Google and others get hold of cloud storage in order to collect and analyze user’s data as this Big Data is a burgeon business. 

What are the laws in India to protect the digital footprint?

Most of the time individuals are do not wary about public data as it is accessible at public at large but it rings the alarm when the private/personal data of an individual which is secured from public view gets disseminated without an individual’s approval and authorization by anybody. 

Indian constitution does not explicitly mention a right to privacy but the Indian courts have held that a right to privacy exists under the right to life guaranteed under Article 21 and freedom of speech and expression under Art 19(1)(a). Nevertheless, India has regulatory mechanism for data protection and privacy i.e. the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“the IT Act”) and its corresponding Information Technology (Reasonable Security Practices and Procedures and Sensitive Personal Data or Information) Rules, 2011 (“the IT Rules”). These present provisions have some limitations and do not offer extensive definition of personal data.

The government of India comprehended that since internet does not respect national boundaries and there is a threat towards individual’s basic right of freedom i.e. the privacy of its citizen, which can be hindered by anybody through any means. It became imperative for them to put together a codified law on data protection or privacy. Lately, the government had introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 to protect and oversee how personal data of individuals should be processed and stored (and lists people’s rights with respect to their personal information) by the data fiduciaries. The data fiduciaries are an individual or entity such as the government, companies incorporated in India, and foreign companies that are dealing with personal data of customers in India.

What are the dangers associated with the digital footprints?

The user’s should restrain from over sharing digital footprint and be more vigilant in its usage as there are possibility of risk of cyber bullying, identity theft, humiliation and embarrassment beside violation of privacy. Users need to figure out that there are dangers associated in posting content that might be inappropriate or controversial as the trail will be left behind. And these trails of data will follow the users into the future. Interestingly, digital footprint gets stored in offline files (by cookies which is a pieces of code but not a programme but if any hacker get hold of it then can access to user’s browsing sessions to spy on or commit cyber crime (it is known as “Cookie hijacking”)) through which it can be found out what that machine might have been used for, so the user should be cautious to use internet cafés, shared computers/devices, public Wi-Fi for sensitive matters. 

There are basic cybersecurity but in reality how well it is being managed is a question. The more usage of these devices will grow the expansion of digital footprint will rise and likely to create more opportunities for cybercriminals to exploit. 

How to manage the digital footprint?

It is important to raise digital footprint awareness (or to be aware of it) so that whenever a user performing some activity in digital environments uses these environments consciously. 

Keep software up-to-date to prevent viruses and malware from mining the digital footprint.

Check the privacy settings on social media accounts. Make sure you know exactly what the public sees when they view your profile.

Pay attention to the privacy settings on the apps on the phone and consider what others might be sharing about you.

Consider what you do and don’t want others to know about you, and behave online accordingly (the internet is not as private as it seems – if it doesn’t exist, they can’t see it).

Conclusion 

In our daily life we are swigging the internet in gulps by using it in necessity and for refreshment, for entertainment, and even when not needed. Since we are breathing and existing in the world of Big Data, it is significant to leave the right impression on the web besides learning the value of internet safety and reducing the digital footprint, after all it is an asset! The digital footprint is an extremely vulnerable asset and it has various threats, so an internet user should recognize the risk and implement security measures.

To protect the security and privacy of peoples’ data is now a global challenge for all nations. This is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility; the European Union through the General Data Protection Regulation (2018) has taken the step and made it eminent (by making the global organizations realize that they all have to be on the same page to defend as such). 


Students of Lawsikho courses regularly produce writing assignments and work on practical exercises as a part of their coursework and develop themselves in real-life practical skill.

LawSikho has created a telegram group for exchanging legal knowledge, referrals and various opportunities. You can click on this link and join:

Follow us on Instagram and subscribe to our YouTube channel for more amazing legal content.

Did you find this blog post helpful? Subscribe so that you never miss another post! Just complete this form…

LEAVE A REPLY