University of Wisconsin–Madison
Human footprint overlaid on a background of ones and zeros

Data Privacy 101: What’s your digital footprint?

Every time you go online—and sometimes even when you don’t—you leave a digital footprint.

From posting a picture of your puppy on Instagram to swiping your rewards card at Chipotle to searching Google, the things you do every day create a trail of often lingering data you may not have intended to leave.

Safeguarding your data and privacy in an ever-growing digital society was the topic of a “Data Privacy 101” brown bag session offered by the UW–Madison Office of Cybersecurity. Part of Data Privacy Month awareness activities, the January 29 brown bag featured panelists from the UW offices of Cybersecurity, Compliance, Legal Affairs and the Registrar.

Though technology is practically everywhere, and we often use it without a second thought, panelists emphasized that one of the most important things you can do is to simply stop and think.

“What kind of a digital footprint do you want to leave?” asked Chief Information Security Officer Bob Turner in kicking off the session.

Your answer starts with the simple understanding that everywhere you click, websites, social media and online services are collecting data about you.

“There are so many people that just use these sites without thinking, without realizing your data is being used every step of the way,” said panelist Phil Hull, senior data strategist in the Office of the Registrar.

Always within reach wherever we go, smartphones, laptops and wearables share a substantial amount of information about you, your movements and habits. Even a seemingly innocuous action can kick off a chain reaction.

That email you just sent your friend from your Gmail account about your upcoming Hawaii trip? It’s no coincidence that when you later logged into Facebook, you got served up an ad for bathing suits—even in the dead of Wisconsin winter.

‘Think before you app’

Panelists at the brown bag session echoed the “think before you app” advice encouraged by the National Cyber Security Alliance: information about you—from the games you play to where you like to shop—has value. Be thoughtful about who gets that information and how it’s collected through apps.

To illustrate the point, Turner showed a video demonstrating just how much data is shared about you through your interactions online—and even offline, like when you walk into a brick-and-mortar store and retailers use technology to track your movements.

“Is anybody worried yet?” Turner asked after showing the video, Hot on Your Trail: Privacy, Your Data, and Who Has Access to It.

Fear, uncertainty and doubt should be acknowledged, said panelist and Deputy Chief Information Security Officer Stefan Wahe. But we’re not entirely powerless. There are several actions we can take to safeguard our personal data and privacy.

“So how do you protect yourself besides knowing the data is out there and turning off the things you don’t need?” Wahe said.

Protecting your privacy: getting started

For starters, try these steps from StaySafeOnline and the National Cyber Security Alliance:

  • Want to view or change your privacy and security settings, but you’re not sure where to find them? Use this guide to update your privacy settings, with direct links to update your settings on popular devices and online services, from Amazon to WhatsApp.
  • Your devices make it easy to connect to the world around you, but they can also leak a lot of information about you, your friends and family—from your contacts to health and financial data. Follow these tips to manage your privacy in an always-on world.

Panelists also advised being intentional about social media use.

“When you’re posting something, really ask yourself: why?” said Office of Compliance director Jaimee Gilford. “Is it for the endorphin hit of another ‘like,’ or is there another way to share information with your friends and families that isn’t putting your data at risk?”

And if you’d like to begin trying to reduce your digital footprint, you could attempt to make a list of every rewards program or discount you’ve ever signed up for—and then try to pare it down by selectively unsubscribing from things you don’t really need. Though it’s likely impossible to make a complete list, it’s an eye-opening exercise.

“You probably can’t even capture all of it,” said Nancy Lynch, associate vice chancellor in the Office of Legal Affairs. “But you’d be amazed at the number of places that put your data out there online.”