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What does your digital footprint say about you?

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Ninety percent of the worlds digital information had been created in the last two years, according to IBM. This includes all data, from sensors collecting climate information, to your social media use. In 2020 it’s estimated there will be more than 5,200 gigabytes of data for every person on earth – now that’s a lot of data.

Who is creating all this data, who is collecting it, and how is it stored? These and many more questions will be answered in this feature article, including how to manage your digital footprint and protect your reputation online.

Data leaves a trail

How much data are Australians producing?

Leaving the climate sensors and other passive data collectors aside, people create vast amounts of data, and much of it is highly personal. According to extendedramblings.com, every minute 148 billion e-mails are sent, 2.2 million searches are performed on Google, and 37,000 hours of video are watched on YouTube.

Six percent of all digital time is spent on Facebook
Facebook has 1.038 billion active daily users
The average user spends 20+ minutes per day on Facebook

Data every minute

With all this data being created, large corporations are in possession of exorbitant amounts of information, and you may have little control of how it is managed. For the vast majority of us, deciding what’s public and what’s private is the only way to protect our information, by only sharing what (we hope) cannot conceivably come back to bite us.

Adults may have a good idea of their rights, work contracts and a notion of what’s appropriate, but younger Aussies may struggle. Bravehearts.org.au is a Queensland based organisation that aims to give kids the tools to protect themselves online, and parents could probably learn a thing or two as well! When it comes to digital footprints, Bravehearts says,

“Your digital footprint is the permanent trace you leave containing your online activity”

This trace is often permanent because the companies who own the website in which you input your data also store the information. For example, Google track every search made by users, that’s over 3.5 billion per day and over 10 exabytes of data, say Cloudtweaks. Google also track behavior when you are browsing websites, from how long you spend on each page, to which device you are using. You may not mind the fact that your internet activity is being traced, after all your history may only contain access to news sites, games, shopping and other harmless activities, but what about your social posts?

Facebook collects 500 terabytes daily, from where you are, to who your friends with and how you’re feeling. Even deleting a post doesn’t mean it’s really gone, just because you can no longer view it doesn’t mean it’s not still accessible. Bravehearts echo this by saying, “Once our digital trail is online, it’s difficult to erase, control or stop it from being shared or collected”

Where the information is stored

Your information is often stored on servers, computers that store and distribute files to other computers. For you to be able to read this, a request from your computer has been sent to a server, and the files received have been read and displayed on your screen. According to Cloudtweaks, Amazon have over 1.4 million servers storing data on everything from shopping carts to pricing. You will never see the server your specific information is stored on, it may even be on another continent, making managing your information extremely difficult to track once it’s uploaded.

“What you share will always be there” – Bravehearts

For the most part it probably doesn’t have a significant impact on your life if one of the big digital organisations has you data. However, if sensitive information is uploaded it’s almost impossible to delete. You may have seen various blunders from companies saying the wrong thing, or even heard personal stories of job losses and reputation damage due to posting sensitive information. These instances often arise from carelessness, but once posted they are very difficult to remove. Shared messages can spread quickly, being seen my family, friends, colleagues and even complete strangers within a short time frame.

Sharing messages infographic

Spreading the word

We’ve all seen viral videos and trending tweets, so just how quickly can a message spread? Here we take a look at Facebook, with privacy settings disabled. Imagine you share an image with your 300 friends, and 35% of these friends see the post. 5% of your friends see it, and share it with their 300 friends (that’s 1,500 friends). Some of these friends may overlap with yours, but you’re likely to not know some of them. If 35% of this new pool of ‘friends’ see the post, and 5% share with their friends, that’s another potential 225 people who have seen it, all with 300 friends.

Pretty quickly the number of potential viewers reaches over 30,000, of which you could easily know only 1% personally. Additionally, this paper, Quantifying the Invisible Audience in Social Networks from Sanford University states that people often underestimate their audience size, so there could be more people watching than you think.

Facebooks privacy settings can go some way to stop this mass viewership, though often even with a profile set to private a Google image search of a person can still reveal results. So, how are young adults getting on?

Sharing social media infographic

According to Like, Post, Share: Young Australians’ Experience of Social Media from ACMA, young adults are well versed in protecting their information online, and the stats get better with age.

12-13yr olds

 

14-15yr olds

 

16-17yr olds

 

“I have decided against posting something as it could harm their digital reputation” 34% 46% 45%
“I have social profiles set to private” 55% 58% 66%
“I have shared social network passwords” 58% 50% 41%

This self-censorship is promising for organisations like Bravehearts, who strive to protect children through education. Encouragingly, the ACMA report found majority of 12-17 year olds have discussed cyber safety with someone else, with popular topics including sharing personal information (87%) and safe ways to use the internet (86%).

How to protect your digital reputation

Ultimately what you choose to share online is your decision, but it’s always a great idea to have open discussions with young adults about what is appropriate to share, and what should be left private so they can learn how to manage their digital footprint and not encounter problems down the track. If you would like to contact experts regarding the tips above, Bravehearts have a wealth of information to help.

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