One aspect of protecting ourselves from cyber threats is to understand the concept of digital footprints. Also known as a digital shadow or an electronic footprint, a digital footprint is the trail of data we leave behind every time we access the Internet. From seemingly harmless web browsing and online shopping to social media and email, every action we take on the Internet contributes to our digital footprint. Our digital footprint starts to accumulate even before we are born. A report published by the Children’s Commissioner, UK, says that parents can post over a thousand pictures of their children online before they’re old enough to handle social media accounts.
Over 94% of the Canadian populace today has Internet access. Almost 85% of these Internet users regularly use social media. While Internet accessibility is a crucial right, it also brings with it increased susceptibility to cybercrimes. Over 56% of global Internet users have been a victim of cybercrime at least once. These statistics show that the topic of cybersecurity is critical and considering what information you share online is equally as critical.
All social posts are data points that accumulate over time, increasing the surface area of our footprint. With access to such vast amounts of data, cybercriminals can build detailed digital profiles that include our habits, likes, dislikes and other personality traits. Unfortunately, this information is all they need to detect our vulnerabilities and exploit them.
So, how do we grasp the seriousness of a digital footprint? What actions can we take to minimize our exposure?
What is a digital footprint?
We are constantly giving away information to the Internet, knowingly or unknowingly. Even if we try to curtail how we disseminate personal data online, the Internet still logs information in ways not known to us. Cookies, for example, track our online lives and share that information with apps and websites, often without our permission.
Combine this data with the information we willingly provide, and hackers can craft a rich online tapestry of our habits, personality and self. This data can be misused in many forms, including creating personalized phishing emails and identity theft.
Our digital footprint is of immense value to cybercriminals and terrorist organizations, radical cults, foreign intelligence services, and rebel groups looking to exploit the data.
What are the four domains of digital footprints?
Digital footprints receive contributions from four spheres:
- Public domain
- Private domain
- IoT domain
- State Activities domain
The public domain consists of the information we voluntarily post online; for instance, all the posts made on social media platforms, personal details filled in websites and e-commerce shopping preferences. We might not be aware of the total aggregate value of all this information and how vulnerable we are to cyber-attacks.
The posts we put up often include overlooked meta details, such as location and email addresses, which can be harvested. Moreover, simple actions, such as sharing a post or even liking it, can be combined with AI to create accurate digital profiles of people. Hackers use these profiles to carry out phishing attacks.
The private domain refers to an individual’s data backed up on the cloud, such as photos and documents. With cloud storage becoming increasingly popular, the risk of data loss and theft has also increased manifold. Hackers can gain unauthorized access to a private cloud and demand ransoms. The threat of ransomware particularly threatens organizations that store sensitive materials on the cloud.
IoT is a more modern threat that has witnessed increased hacks because IoT devices have become popular. IoT devices work wirelessly with WiFi and Bluetooth, leaving unsecured networks vulnerable to hackers. These devices collect sensitive data about our homes and personal lives all the time. Many of these devices come with sensors that can capture voice recordings and videos and send them to remote Web services, extending the IoT footprint beyond the four walls of a home.
An extended and unprotected IoT footprint can leave people exposed to threats of profiling, remote device control, and control over the visual and audio outputs of devices.
State Activities Domain
The state possesses legal means to access a lot of digital information about people. While their goal is to deter and catch criminals, data leaks do occur. In May 2021, Canada Post suffered a data breach that compromised the data of over 950,000 customers.
This domain also includes mobile phone usage data, location tracking, metadata, CCTV footage, banking transactions and automatic number-plate-recognition data.
Every action we take on the Internet leaves behind a trail of data that gets accumulated over time. The surface area of our digital footprint has increased significantly due to the Internet and related technologies in our lives, leaving us vulnerable to cyber-attacks. It is important to understand our digital footprint to secure our data and digital lives.