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How To Erase Your Digital Footprint

Friday, November 11, 2011 4:26
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Posted 11/10/2011 at 1:42pm | by Jeffrey A. Lambert

 

Think about all the things you’ve used your Internet for in the past 24 hours. You’ve probably checked your email, updated your Facebook status, paid some bills through online banking, read up on the latest news, and took the time before bed to video chat with a far-flung childhood friend. Even after logging out and turning off your computer, the information you’ve just accessed or created continues to wander the great plains of the World Wide Web. This information that we leave behind about ourselves on a daily basis is known as our digital footprint.

Like stepping in wet concrete, these trails we unwittingly leave behind can be tough to erase. With the rise of identity theft, corporate tracking, and the ability of “Big Brother” to access our private data, it is more important than ever for Internet users to be aware of how past and future data can be erased and controlled more effectively.

How Big is My Footprint?

To truly understand just how big your digital footprint is, there are several tools available that can be easily accessed and added to your computer for constant monitoring and control.

Google is one of the most commonly accused mediums for collecting our data, and rightfully so. That ad that just popped up on your GMail page for cookbooks does indeed have something to do with your search for a killer Spam recipe for last Sunday’s tailgate party.

On a daily basis Google pings your browser for information about browsing history, allowing the search giant to improve their search algorithms and target advertising. Interested in seeing just how often this is happening? Download the free software offering Google Alarm, created by F.A.T. Labs, which is available for both Firefox and Chrome browsers. This add-on will notify you each time you are sending data to Google. Just make sure you disable the sound option for this. I jumped out of my chair the first time the (very loud) alarm went off, and kept going off almost every time I visited a new site. Unless you have a serious love for air horns or are trying to induce a heart attack don’t forget to do this!

G alarm

Another way to measure your digital footprint is to see how much advertising companies have been allowed to track your browsing habits. “But I never gave any companies permission to know about sites I visit” you insist. The sad reality is that simply visiting certain sites allows advertising companies to place what are known as “tracking cookies” on your computer. Cookies are small chunks of data created by web servers that are delivered through a web browser and stored on your computer. They allow websites that you often frequent to keep track of your online patterns and preferences, creating a personalized experience.

Leading the fight to raise awareness and provide solutions to this issue is the Network Advertising Initiative, a coalition of cooperative of online marketing and analytics companies committed to “building consumer awareness and establishing responsible business and data management practices and standards.”

According to the NAI, “Most of the advertising online today is provided by 3rd party ad networks. These networks use tools such as cookies to track your Web preferences and usage patterns in order to tailor advertising content to your interests. What you may not realize is that information gathered at one website may be used to direct ad content at another site.”

To combat this, the NAI has created a service that scans your computer to identify those member companies that have placed an advertising cookie file on your computer. The results from running this simple diagnostic can be eye-opening about how much your internet habits are being monitored.

digital footprint

Another method of obtaining a simple estimate about your digital footprint is by using the Digital Footprint Calculator, provided as a service from the EMC Corporation. The software download, which is available for both Windows and Mac, measures user input about the frequency of emails, photo and video uploads, phone usage, web browsing, and where in the world you live. After submitting your estimates, the calculator will provide you with an actual file size of your presence on the Internet. The software also ironically provides an option of creating a ticker widget to share your results on a web page, thus expanding your footprint in the process.

Looking for a quick way to determining digital shoe size? Write down every site on the Internet you have created a user account for. Sound impossible? For most of us, we have cast such a wide personal net across the web, that it is insurmountable to go back and accurately pinpoint where we’ve left information about ourselves. Attempting to complete this exercise may bring on the realization that caging the Internet beast that is your personal information is next to impossible, and for the most part, it is. Fortunately, there are organizations and free software offerings that can help you bring your data monster into submission.

Erasing Your Digital Footprint

Now that you’ve had the chance to measure just how big your footprint is, what steps can be taken to try and erase it? Let’s start with cookies.

A simple way to ensure safe browsing without a trail is to make sure you are cleaning out your cache of cookies on your computer. Accessing the preferences option in any browser and clicking the “delete cookies” option can easily do this. A word of warning though: those users who enjoy auto-login and personal customization and personalization of sites you frequent will be deleted.

ccleaner

If you would like a more thorough method of cleaning up cookies, as well as Internet history and other tracking tools, there are free options available. A popular software offering (and a MaximumPC favorite) for Windows users is CCleaner. CCleaner, which is available as a free download or pay version (if you want technical support included), cleans all Internet history, cookies, auto-complete forms, and index files from your computer. Supported browsers include IE, Firefox, Chrome, Opera and Safari.

Another option to clean cookies on your computer, particularly flash cookies, is a freeware program called Flash Cookie Cleaner. Flash cookies are simply cookies created by Adobe Flash plug-ins on websites that perform the same snooping tasks as regular cookies. Flash Cookie Cleaner works to eliminate these files, but also contains options to save cookies to sites you trust and wish to keep information on.

Another easy way to erase your digital footprint is to make sure you are deleting accounts to websites you no longer frequent. Sites can often employ difficult account cancellation practices, which can discourage users from going through the trouble. Smashing Magazine writer Cameron Chapman has compiled an excellent article on how to delete your account from popular websites. This can be one of the quickest ways to erase your personal data, making it unavailable to be used by one company or sold to another. Still have your Friendster, MySpace, or Bebo account active? That data is still available for others to see!

Erasing personal information that has already been made public on the web should be the next step in your clean-out process. Do a basic search of your name on sites such as Spoke, Intelius and WhitePages to pull up what the rest of the world sees about you. From there, it becomes a tedious (but worthwhile) process of filling out online forms and making phone calls with these services to limit or remove your personal information from company databases. For more information on public data companies to check and how to remove your information from them, check out this article from Gizmodo writer Kelly Hodgkins.

If drastic measures are needed to erase your information, companies are ready and waiting to “wash out” your digital footprint: for a price. Reputation.com offers a suite of paid services to protect, promote, and defend their customers’ personal data online. Their tagline?

“Scammers, stalkers and identity thieves prey on private data. Equally harmful are things we call negative content — a bad review of your business, a nasty comment on Facebook, an article about something from your past that’s simply irrelevant now — that could damage your personal life or your livelihood. We can help.”

If an absolute face lift or dramatic reduction of your online information is needed, pay services such as this may be your quickest way to a smaller digital shoe size.

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Total 21 comments
  • Anonymous

    -
    WHERE IS THE INFO For “HOW TO ERASE YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT”?
    -
    WHERE IS THE INFO For “HOW TO ERASE YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT”?
    -
    WHERE IS THE INFO For “HOW TO ERASE YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT”?
    -
    WHERE IS THE INFO For “HOW TO ERASE YOUR DIGITAL FOOTPRINT”?

  • Realized

    I use NoScript (firefox addon) to block all google bots. and use a alternative searchengine that also search the google database for me, so the result are not that bad.

  • Survival Spot

    There is no way to erase your digital footprint, every step is tracked.

  • Anonymous

    Info on next page
    Info on next page
    Info on next page
    Info on next page

  • Anonymous

    Create a fake Facebook page that links to people you do not know and refrences e-mail addresses created 20 years ago when everything was dial up and you will leave a footprint and internet existance that the NSA would need to pay a nerd OT to figure out even “IF” they had any interest in a single non discript individual. You are only important enough to be noticed if you are of import. Most of us are not.

  • Anonymous

    You got that right. Thus the chemical trails from the air force tankers I see daily over head.

  • Survival Spot

    The NSA doesn’t need to be selective of who they track. They have enough computing power to track everyone all the time. It’s not like the old days with a “file” on each individual person. Now they save everything that happens period; and sort out the rest later.

  • hilly7

    If they’re tracking me I’m worried about them, and by now they are worried too. They’ll see I am pretty damn boring. Awake yet when the majority sleeps, what does it matter.

  • Anonymous

    If you are a real investigative reporter then please tell us in your article how to erase these tracking cookies that are placed in our computers. Seems the software people must be complicite with the advertisers if it is not in your normal software to delete this problem easily or at least be informed of its presents. Maybe that’s why gates makes so much money.

  • -kg-

    @ Anonymous on Sat 12 Nov 2011 02:11:

    Check out the Help files for whatever browser you’re using and look up cookies. Every browser I’ve ever used gives you the ability to delete cookie files…most of them automatically, every time you shut down the computer.

    Also, read the article again:

    “CCleaner, which is available as a free download or pay version (if you want technical support included), cleans all Internet history, *COOKIES*, auto-complete forms, and index files from your computer.”

    I’ve seen this software recommended in many places and have used it myself, when I ran Windows. I now run Linux, but I’m aware enough to know how to clean cookies out of my browser.

  • Anti-Zion

    Deleteing cookies/UserData/Shared Data/Flash Shared objects is not the answer.

    You can not delete your foot print unless you have access to Googles database but you sure as hell can corrupt your footprint !

    if you can code then get yourself a copy of MS-Fiddler and then use visual studio to write a little program that changes the urls and tweaks the cookies and drop the DLL in the fiddler directory.(Fiddler is plugable)

    Add HTTP headers like X-Forward-for and Via to the request to make it look like you are behind a firewall.

    collect them cookies and mix them up using a static coockiecollection.

    use web-sockets to kickout to arrays of proxy servers (not Codeen) to send googles massive ga.js url’s from 100 locations around the world.

    These spyware servers often use unregistered IP-Addresses as feeds for adverts and they don’t care how they get these feeds and it’s not to hard to tweak things like the campaign ID and call the server and then allow it to isue a 302 redirect up to the next server offical add-server.

    People you would not beleive the lengths these people go to and you won’t beleive the lengths other will go to stop them.

    MS has lost the fight to become big brother and they are now giving you tools that can help combat the likes of Google but they rule the block on collecting data from home and you need to delete your index.dat files but it’s far from easy because every windows update seems to change the rule.

    MS uses super hidden folders for index.dat file and lock them and you can no longer run start-up scripts in win 7 to delete them because the process won’t have the right permission.

    You can delete them by
    1. Knowing where they are
    2. Deleting them from a second admin account.

    PM me if you want to know more or if you would like to help bring a pirate array of servers down, it’s my pet project after my daughter download a virus and i had to spend a day rebuild the machine.

    to win you don’t play by the rules, you make the rules so stop fighting by hitting with your faces.

  • Anti-Zion

    One last thing

    FireFox is not your freind ! They get $60m from Google each year and if you type About:config into the address bar and then search for Google you will see what i’m saying plus it sends out lots of id’s that are coded into the pref.js file.

    windows is call home all the time with or without internet explorer so block any request that don’t have a user-agent if you can.

    Opera to me is crap and i tend to use Safria for windows because they are not part of Google and not part of MS

  • Chartricia

    Any thing you say, can, and will be used against you! Because you are guilty until proven innocent.

  • g-man

    how to erase your digital footprint?
    use your room mates computer!

  • Maximus Maximus

    Sorry to play devil’s advocate but there is a reason why websites such as facebook and google are completely free of charge.

    Set your browser to block all cookies…if a site wont let you use it’s services without accepting cookies maybe you should find an alternate site…just saying.

  • Anti-Zion

    PeerBlock is good but did you know your own IPS is working to stop you blocking the spyware ?

    False DNS results for the likes of doubleclick !

    You must also note that much of the spying goes on serve side and is relayed which is how i use Ajax.

    just given your user agent, accepts and flash verion you have an almost unique signiture so use that with your IP address and they can take a good guess it’s you and if you go to one of your usual sites then they have you.

    You don’t win a war using defence only and the way forwards is to attack back and tweek them cookies, send them from 20 proxy servers all back to the source ? Cookies use up server resourses and slows down databases.

    play with those long url’s. get Googles ga.js and tweak the code, only serve up a cached copy(this one uses a checksum in the url) and send it back to google.

    did you know you get nearly as many 302′s (Found) as 200 (OK) when you browse and the reason for this is that these don’t end up in history and can be used to hide the referer string.

    some of the adverts you are viewing on ebay are custom 404 pages, not saved in cache and they look just like every other advert.

    Rover.ebay.com uses unique ID’s in the referer string they get from your email account so they know it’s you logging in to get email long after you deleted cookies from ebay.

    i could write a book on this and i only know about half the tricks they are using (sorry forgot etags) but in war when you have spys you feed them duff info when ever possible and we can win because we happen to know who the spys are.

  • Maximus Maximus

    Many thanks to the author of this article.

    I’ve disabled all plug-ins on my internet brower and my God it’s like a breath of fresh air!

    NINETY percent of the ads have disappeared from daily internet browsing!

    When I want to watch a video that requires permission for a plug-in; one simple click and I watch the video.

    Also I have noticed annoying “auto-play” ads/plug-ins have disappeared from view…this will definitely keep my internet usage bill lower.

  • Anti-Zion
  • Anonymous

    You people are crazy if you think the NSA is tracking everything all the time. There is not enough space on all the hard drives in the world to keep that much data. unless you are selling nuclear secrets or trafficing humans I dont think you have to worry. Oh or trying to exercise your right to free speech.

  • Control Freaks

    The most sure-fire way that I have found to be able to leave as small of a footprint as possible, and still be able to remove what’s left, was to pay for a license and install BitDefender Total Security.

    With this software, I can control ALL cookies, but most importantly, I can control the scripts that website want to run on my machine. BD TS allows the user to control absolutely every aspect of what happens on their machine before it happens.

    I have to select Yes or No for every cookie that wants to be placed on my machine, as well, I have to select to Allow or Block any items that want to make entries to or changes to my registry.

    If you want total control over what happens to your machine, download and install BitDefender Total Security. I have no relationship the company whatsoever except that I am a very satisfied end-user.

    Having Firefox set to clear all history when Firefox closes is another method of cleaning out what gets leftover too.

  • NIBIRU

    fsaf

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