Are you in control of your digital footprint?

It is easy to think that e-commerce scams and hacking attempts are less of a concern today among digital natives who have grown up with digital technologies.

One such digital native, 27-year-old Hariz Taufik, believes that tech-savvy young adults are generally more aware about safeguarding their data online by making their social media accounts private and refraining from sharing personal information such as addresses or mobile numbers.

This is in part due to how schools are educating students about the importance of online safety, especially in an era marked by a growing number of media platforms, says Mr Hariz.

Living in the digital age also means it’s just as important to be aware of our digital footprint as much as our carbon footprint. Yet, despite a greater understanding of technology and its influence, are we as safe and cautious as we can be?

“Even when we carefully share personal information or upload pictures behind a private social media account, we still lose some degree of privacy,” says Mr Hariz. “Shopping online or enabling the location services on our phone’s apps are some of the ways we unknowingly create digital footprints.”

This phenomenon highlights the importance of considering the various ways our online activity can be used by others, and taking necessary steps to mitigate such risks.

Risk of scams and identity theft


Anyone can gather all the information about a person online and use them with malicious intent. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Online spaces offer many opportunities for individuals to reach out easily to global audiences. However, it is this same advantage that gives criminals and scammers the ability to prey on unsuspecting victims, according to Dr Jiow Hee Jhee, a Media Literacy Council member and Digital Communications and Integrated Media programme director at the Singapore Institute of Technology.

Anyone can gather all the information available about a person online without his or her knowledge — from interests and hobbies, social groups, or even favourite places to hang out based on one’s posts and geo-tagging — and use them with malicious intent.

This hits close to home for Mr Hariz, whose friends have been victims of such attempts.

He says: “People can easily obtain various information about someone online and facilitate identity-related crimes. Someone once impersonated my friend on Instagram and sent me a direct message asking for my personal information.”

Thankfully, the attempt was unsuccessful as Mr Hariz was careful and had texted his friend via WhatsApp to check if she had indeed sent the message.

While the digitally literate may be less likely to fall prey to scams, they should still be wary about the information they share online.

Warns Dr Jiow: “Your credibility and reputation can be affected regardless of whether a scam is successful or not. By oversharing information online, your friends and family may be more wary of trusting the messages they receive from you, and potential employers could have concerns that you could put their data at risk too.”

TIP: Adjust your privacy settings on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to protect personal information, and consider disabling geo-tagging or location settings on your phone and social media to reduce your chances of being a victim of malicious intent. Also be sure to check your social media settings regularly, as platforms may change their privacy policies from time to time.

Affect employment and further education opportunities


Employers can review an applicant’s digital footprint as part of the hiring process. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Along with Internet users, employers have become increasingly digitally savvy over the years. According to a Financial Times article in 2018, social media has transformed the job market, with employers taking increasing interest in the online presence and activities of applicants. The article also cited a 2017 survey by US recruitment company CareerBuilder that revealed 70 per cent of companies used social media to screen candidates as part of the hiring process. This increased from 11 per cent in 2006 to 60 per cent in 2016.

Mr Hariz is unsurprised about the practice of reviewing an applicant’s digital footprint.

“I can see why companies analyse online data prior to hiring an individual,” he says, when presented with the statistics. “Hiring the right person is essential for business growth and analysing the data online could be a quick and cost-effective way to get to know the candidate better even prior to the interview.”

It’s thus important to always consider potential repercussions before posting anything online. Adds Dr Jiow: “What you post today or even ten years ago can be saved and used to your disadvantage when you least expect it.”

TIP: Uncertain about what you already have online? Trace your digital footprint by entering your name into a search engine and reviewing the results. Be sure to use an incognito browser to pull neutral results and take the necessary steps to remove problematic online content or posts.

Cause damage to one’s reputation


Private conversations online can be leaked and used against a person. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

It’s no secret that millennials are online for a large part of their day. Founder of EmpathyWorks Psychological Wellness and registered psychologist Joy Hou explains that it’s also not uncommon for millennials to prefer to update their friends and loved ones about their lives via social media posts. They would also invite friends, loved ones and followers to leave comments or click ‘like’ to show their affection or support.

Such interactions online can occur behind a private social media page and considered personal conversations, but there could be instances where information is leaked and used against a person.

While it’s easy to think that friends or loved ones would never do that to you, Ms Hou says it’s still important to consider the possibility and suggests some reasons why individuals could engage in such behaviours:

  • To gain attention: They get to be the centre of attention temporarily while the piece of private information goes viral, and they receive numerous likes or shares on social media.
  • To express anger, unhappiness or envy: Some may engage in such behaviours to hurt those whose popularity, talents, or lifestyles they envy. They may derive a warped sense of fulfilment when the affected party’s reputation is tarnished.
  • To quell low self-esteem: To temporarily feel secure or superior, some may share information about or judge others.
  • To feel empowered: Bullied or victimised individuals may exert the same behaviours online for a taste of the power they do not have in the real world.

Ms Hou says: “In cyberspace where millions of people can access information with only one click, fake stories or ugliness about a person can go viral in seconds.”

The ripple effects could grow and include a wider audience, and be permanent.

However, in the digital age where the Internet can be a critical means of communication to bridge and build personal relationships across physical distances, it’s also unrealistic to cut yourself off from everyone else by not sharing any information online at all.

Thus, it’s perhaps more important to simply exercise caution by thinking twice about the personal and private information you post, and being aware of who you’re sharing the information with.

TIP: Avoid oversharing personal information, or texts, photos and videos on platforms such as Facebook or Instagram even if you have a private account as someone can take a screenshot and share or leak that information.

Making better choices online

With the Internet and social media being such an integral part of our personal and professional lives, it’s increasingly important to learn and apply best safety practices.

“It’s always good to err on the side of caution and take preventive steps so that you do not end up becoming a victim,” says Dr Jiow.

Consider applying the tips below to secure your digital footprint:


GRAPHIC: MEDIA LITERACY COUNCIL


GRAPHIC: MEDIA LITERACY COUNCIL

Don different hats to see if what you post could affect present and future personal or professional relationships, and be mindful that the Internet is both a positive and negative tool.

While leveraging the endless possibilities for connection and innovation the Internet brings, being aware of what we share and the lasting consequences of our choices online can empower us to better use it positively.

For more information and tips to Be Smart online, download the tip sheet on digital footprint here.

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