Digital footprint

Digital footprint

A digital footprint is a trail left by an entity's interactions in a digital environment; including their usage of TV, mobile phone, internet and world wide web, mobile web and other devices and sensors. Digital footprints provide data on what an entity has performed in the digital environment; and are valuable in assisting behavioural targeting, personalisation, targeted marketing, digital reputation, and other social media or social graphing services.[1]

In social media, a digital footprint is the size of an individuals online presence; as it relates to the number of individuals they interact with.



A digital footprint is a collection of activities and behaviours recorded when an entity (such as a person) interacts in a digital environment. It may include the recording of activities such as system login and logouts, visits to a web-page, accessed or created files, or emails and chat messages. The digital footprint allows interested parties to access this data; possibly for data mining, or profiling purposes.

One of the first references to a digital footprint was by Nicholas Negroponte, naming it the slug trail in his book Being Digital in 1996. John Battelle called digital footprints the clickstream exhaust, while Tim O'Reilly and Esther Dyson titled it the data exhaust.[2] Early usage of the term focused on information left by web activity alone, but came to represent data created and consumed by all devices and sensors.[3]

Footprinting process

Inputs to digital footprint include attention, location, time of day, search results and key words, content created and consumed, digital activity and data from sensor, and from the users social crowd. Some data can come from deep IP and Internet data, such as footprinting. Value created from the collection of inputs and analysis of the data are recommendation, protection, personalisation, ability to trade or barter and contextual adaptation. Part of the analysis phase is Reality mining

Feedback loop

In an open system, data is collected from a user, which is used to build a profile (see Profiling practices); becoming usable by interested third parties to improve recommendation. Collection of data from multiple user interactions and purchases generates improved recommendations. If the same parties collect data on how that user interacts with, or influences others interactions, the service, there is an additional component of data - the output of one process becomes the input to the next.

The closed loop digital footprint was first explained by Tony Fish[4] in his book on digital footprints in January 2010. The closed loop takes data from the open loop and provides this as a new data input. This new data determines what the user has reacted to, or how they have been influenced. The feedback then builds a digital footprint based on social data, and the controller of the social digital footprint data can determine who and why people purchase and behave. According to a Pew Internet report published in 2007, there are two main classifications for digital footprints: passive and active. A passive digital footprint is created when data is collected about an action without any client activation, whereas active digital footprints are created when personal data is released deliberately by a user for the purpose of sharing information about oneself.[5]

Passive digital footprints can be stored in many ways depending on the situation. In an online environment a footprint may be stored in an online data base as a hit. This footprint may track the user IP address, when it was created, and where they came from; with the footprint later being analyzed. In an offline environment, a footprint may be stored in files, which can be accessed by administrators to view the actions performed on the machine, without being able to see who performed them.

Active digital footprints can be also be stored in many ways depending on the situation. In an online environment, a footprint can be stored by a user being logged into a site when making a post or edit, with the registered name being connected to the edit. In an off line environment a footprint may be stored in files, when the owner of the computer uses a keylogger, so logs can show the actions performed on the machine, and who performed them.

Web browsing

The digital footprint applicable specifically to the World Wide Web is the internet footprint;[6] also known as cyber shadow or digital shadow, information is left behind as a result of a user's web-browsing activities, including through the use of cookies. The term usually applies to an individual person, but can also refer to a business, organization, corporation or object.

Information may be intentionally or unintentionally left behind by the user; with it being either passively or actively collected by other interested parties. Depending on the amount of information left behind, it may be simple for other parties to gather large amounts of information on that individual using simple search engines. Internet footprints are used by interested parties for several reasons; including cyber-vetting, where interviewers could research applicants based on their online activities. Internet footprints are also used by law enforcement agencies, to provide information that would be unavailable otherwise due to a lack of probable cause.

Social networking systems may record activities of individuals, with data becoming a life stream. Such usage of social media and roaming services allow digital tracing data to include individual interests, social groups, behaviours, and location. Such data can be gathered from sensors within devices, and collected and analyzed without user awareness.

Privacy issues

Digital footprints are not a digital identity or passport, but the meta data collected impacts upon internet privacy, trust, security, digital reputation, and recommendation. As the digital world expands and integrates with more aspects of life, ownership and rights of data becomes important. Digital footprints are controversial in that privacy and openness are in competition.[7] Scott McNealy said in 1999 Get Over It when referring to privacy on the internet,[8] becoming a commonly used quote in relationship to private data and what companies do with it.

While a digital footprint can be used to infer personal information without their knowledge, it also exposes individuals private psychological sphere into the social sphere (see Bruno Latour's article (Latour 2007)). Lifelogging is an example of indiscriminate collection of information concerning an individuals life and behaviour (Kieron, Tuffield & Shadbolt 2009).

See also



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