What does the words ‘online fingerprint’ conjure up? This term may be esoteric technobabble for most people, but nevertheless, it is a fact that what it points to is rather important in a connected internet society -which is the world we live in now. The term online fingerprint is very aptly situated as a critical issue in the ever-growing journals of today’s turbulent and concerning cyberspace discourse because it involves all of us who browse the internet and use this incredible tool for our fundamental existential needs. The concept of online fingerprints is also sometimes called a digital footprint, which is a different name for the same concept. In essence, we are talking about the growing problem with online digital privacy – basically how we trust what the internet does with our data – which has become a serious issue nowadays in the public domain. We will look at what digital privacy and online fingerprinting are, along with evidence of the issues related to these terms. Finally, we’ll delve into recommendations on how to practice a more privacy-focused, more anonymous, and ultimately safer internet existence.
The concept of digital privacy has been around for a long time in some shape or form, ever since people started to upload data onto the internet and also when we became aware that data could be intercepted by ‘hackers’. It wasn’t until the mid-2010s and later approaching the 2020s, following high-profile data breaches and surveillance scandals, that the world would come to take digital privacy very seriously, realizing the dangerous implications of relying on (more importantly, completely trusting) the internet. This has also led to people fighting for their digital privacy ‘rights, and the growing desire to know exactly what is being done with our data.
Online fingerprinting, or as previously mentioned a digital footprint, is exactly what it alludes to- an online trace, trail or evidence of something. It is any information or signature, specifically pertaining to you and your activities. This data originates from your browser and system apps, which is constantly being communicated to the internet. Think of it as leaving a trail of breadcrumbs as you browse and work on the internet. This type of information, or fingerprint, is most commonly communicated through the web browser via which you access the internet. This information encompasses anything from the websites you have visited and left browser cookies on, to details about your IP address, social media accounts, email addresses and any and all active or passive activities that are communicated through your device to other websites and the rest of the internet. Information from mapping applications together with your device’s GPS also tells a lot about your location and your movements. Your online fingerprint is something that can remain online, or in the hands of others, potentially forever. Powerful artificial intelligence algorithms are also gathering information on everything from how and where you move your mouse to your website preferences which then creates an online profile of you. Today, there is an entire economy created around the sale of these digital commodities, where companies are profiting from gathered user data without any ethical or moral afterthought.
Once your web browser communicates e.g. browser cookies, your IP address (approximate physical whereabouts), system details and the web page you last visited to the internet, there are then different ways in which this data will be used. This data can be used by (not limited to) advertisers, third-party marketing agencies, search engines, large shopping platforms, financial institutions and even employers. This data can then be utilized further to customize the ads that you will be bombarded with on a daily basis -in essence infringing on your privacy by force.
Let’s look on the bright side. An online fingerprint can be a good thing when it comes to building an online presence, trying to get hired or noticed, or it can help adjust the experience based on your interests to offer you better online shopping. However, the disadvantages do seem to outweigh the benefits. This is because, with an unchecked online fingerprint, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to;
As we have seen, an online fingerprint isn’t something to be paranoid about, however, it is good to keep a high level of cybersecurity hygiene, or internet hygiene (good practices), at all times because there really isn’t an internet policeman that you can call on if your information is breached or falls in the wrong hands. On the internet, you are pretty much on your own. So, here are some steps you can take to ensure that the possibility of your data being used for malicious purposes is kept to a minimum;
It is important to mention the obvious: always think about what you will discuss, share, post or upload on the internet as this data may end up in the wrong hands -something you most probably won’t have any control over when it’s too late. You can also run an internet search on yourself, to see exactly what sort of information is out there about you.