I think it’s safe to say that at one point or another, we’ve all had feelings of concern regarding our digital footprint. Whether it’s before a job interview or partnering with a new client, what exactly our online profile says about us, and the wider company or brand we represent, may be front of mind. How, then, do we put our best foot(print) forward?
While many of us may have may like to take annual stock of what we have, make goals for the year, and declutter what we no longer need, perhaps we haven’t given our digital footprint the attention it deserves. Now, it’s time to give your digital profile that overdue check-up, inventory, and spring clean.
Whilst there is no replacement for proper investigative work and due diligence, there are some things you can do to understand your own digital footprint. Here’s a basic guide that doesn’t require any tools, subscriptions or even much of a tech know-how to complete.
Step 1: Take stock of your digital footprint
As investigators, we spend a lot of our time analysing online information: whether finding social media accounts or determining connections with other people, these insights help us paint a picture that represents an individual’s digital footprint. For this initial, basic ‘self due diligence’, you need to think like a reporter: be objective, and don’t take anything at face value. This self-assessment of your digital footprint can be a useful first stage analysis – but remember that there are limits to what you’ll be able to find out, and if you need a deeper assessment of what’s out there, take it to the experts.
Firstly, you’ll need to take stock. What social media accounts have you set up in the past? Have you written any blogs? Do you subscribe to any blogs or media pages? And don’t forget that Skype account from 2010!
It may be helpful here to imagine the internet’s latest subject of mounting excitement, the Metaverse. Picture your digital footprint as a walking, talking avatar of you, displaying all kinds of information about you for anyone who is willing to look. It’s important to highlight that while publicly presenting your information online isn’t at all an inherently bad thing, it would be wise to be diligent about what information is being displayed.
Step 2: The long one
Step two is good old-fashioned research, make a big cup of coffee and start scrolling through the ‘feed’, the posts or the blogs. Try to picture yourself as your potential future employer and try to picture what their perception of you would be from the posts and pictures on your wall, feed or Twitter account (including posts by others!). Remember, just because it was posted in 2009, doesn’t mean it won’t affect you now. For more detailed pre-business due diligence, this isn’t something you should attempt to do yourself – with complex deals and multiple parties, it’s vital to seek professional services.
Step 3: Deleted does not mean gone
Untagged, deleted, hidden – all of these have one thing in common, they don’t necessarily mean that the post or information is gone. Once you’ve cleared the unwanted photos or commentary associated with your account, it’s time to start looking at where else this information might show up, and there are many useful (and free) tools that you can use to do so.
Boolean searches on Google
Before I explain how to search, it’s important to highlight that a search engine, while useful, is not a magical question machine. Instead imagine it as a device that scans webpages based on keywords (your input in the search bar). Take Google, for example; Google analyses the content, images, and video files in a page, trying to understand what the page is about, and then matches the most relevant pages to your search. In summary, the better your search, the better the result.
The go-to search engine for anyone looking you up is a good place to start yourself, and it’s time to get creative with your sleuthing. Using advanced search tools like a Boolean can help you ensure that nothing unsavoury is associated with your good name online.
Boolean searches allow you to combine words and phrases using the words AND, OR, NOT (known as Boolean operators) to limit, broaden, or define your search. Try formulas such as:
[Your name] AND [anything you don’t want associated with you]
[Your name] AND [Your school, university, job or hometown]
Key word searches such as the ones above will save you a lot of time digging through the pages of information out there and help you figure out exactly what aspects of you are out there for the world to see. These are especially helpful if you have a common name.
Reverse image searches
Another method of checking whether you have a paper trail of unwanted, content online (or outside of your private Instagram account) is to reverse image search. Use Google’s reverse image search tool with your profile pictures and other identifying images to find out where else your information may be used. To do this, right click on a picture of you, copy the link and then paste the link here. This may also lead you to the discovery of your photos being used without your permission, it’s an important check to do!
Step 4: Data check
As internet users, we have an increased tolerance for the tick-box pop ups and GDPR compliance checks on the websites we frequent, and for many of us the habitual click of ‘accept all cookies’ is a simple muscle memory reaction. However, our personal data is not always as protected as we might hope, and another check to run is whether your email address has been compromised.
A good place to start is the respectable, albeit slang-named, haveibeenpwned.com. The website allows you to input your email address and it will run a check to determine if your email address has been compromised in a data leak. Unfortunately, data leaks are a relatively common occurrence and a regular check (and regular password changes) are recommended.
Step 5: The final step: protecting your digital footprint
Double check your privacy settings on social media sites, or any others that hold your personal information. However, don’t then assume your data is in the clear. For example, just because Facebook limits who can see a picture of you, doesn’t mean that picture won’t turn up anywhere else online.
Treat your digital footprint as a sign you carry around your neck, if you’re not happy with someone you walk past on the street seeing your information, then it probably shouldn’t be online.
On a final note, if you do come across content that you don’t want online, and you aren’t confident you can remove it, or you find yourself worrying that more content may turn up, there are a number of steps that the Cyber, Intelligence & Investigations and Legal teams at Schillings can help you with. It is, after all, our bread and butter.