Does It Really Matter if Someone Steals Your ‘Digital Footprint’?

Remember your last post on MySpace, your last tag on Facebook or that tweet you wrote two months ago? Have any idea when you last updated your LinkedIn account or profile? Maybe not, but advertisers, identity thieves and online tracking companies sure do. Not to mention potential employers, family and friends. That may sound like a major breach of privacy, but is it really worth the time, and money, to erase your ‘digital footprint’?

Remember your last post on MySpace, your last tag on Facebook or that tweet you wrote two months ago?  Have any idea when you last updated your LinkedIn account or profile?  Maybe not, but advertisers, identity thieves and online tracking companies sure do.  Not to mention potential employers, family and friends. That may sound like a major breach of privacy, but is it really worth the time, and money, to erase your ‘digital footprint’?

Social network users, research confirms, are the first to jump on the latest online trend, creating a profile on every new site just to check it out, but the last to worry about their online privacy.  Yet, whether you use them or not, your social network profiles live on forever on the Web.

As more and more people create a presence on social network sites, and then promptly forget about it, a new cottage industry targeted at social media users has emerged to focus on one thing:  managing, or even erasing, your ‘digital footprint.’, for example, promises online protection, at a price, in this case either a $100 annual subscription or $10 monthly fee.

For that, MyID will continuously monitor your online presence, particularly on social-networking accounts; alert you when possible fraudulent activity occurs; and e-mail or text message you when new personal information appears online.  They’ll also show you how to prevent compromising information from even getting online, and how to minimize or remove it if the damage is already done.

The service launched last month after its founders realized their other site, SafetyWeb, created for parents to monitor their children’s online activities, was being used, instead, by the parents themselves.

“People lose track of where they’ve left their digital footsteps,” MyID co-founder Michael Clark told Portfolio. “[Using MyID], you’re seeing what’s posted about you and how others might interpret you.”

But is an old Facebook account or your name appearing in a Google search really something to be concerned about, and spend your hard-earned money to fix?

Time magazine writer Joel Stein, for one, thinks not. In an extensive story on the topic, Stein offered himself up as an example, having data-mining companies like RapLeaf, EXelate, and Intellidyn dig into his files, researching his own profiles with ad-targeting companies from Google to Yahoo! and paying online privacy firms to clear his ‘digital footprint’ for him.

Stein’s takeaway?  It’s all more hype than necessity.

“Oddly, the more I learned about data mining, the less concerned I was. Sure, I was surprised that all these companies are actually keeping permanent files on me. But I don’t think they will do anything with them that does me any harm. There should be protections for vulnerable groups, and a government-enforced opt-out mechanism would be great for accountability. But I’m pretty sure that, like me, most people won’t use that option. Of the people who actually find the Ads Preferences page — and these must be people pretty into privacy — only 1 in 8 asks to opt out of being tracked. The rest, apparently, just like to read privacy rules.

We’re quickly figuring out how to navigate our trail of data — don’t say anything private on a Facebook wall, keep your secrets out of e-mail, use cash for illicit purchases. The vast majority of it, though, is worthless to us and a pretty good exchange for frequent-flier miles, better search results, a fast system to qualify for credit, finding out if our babysitter has a criminal record and ads we find more useful than annoying. Especially because no human being ever reads your files. As I learned by trying to find out all my data, we’re not all that interesting.

The online privacy service Stein relied on to monitor his online presence,, offers packages that range from $99 for the basic “MyReputation” services that allow you to remove your private personal data, to more sophisticated “ReputationDefender” packages that scale up to $10,000 and promise to both remove any negative personal data and bump you to the top of search engine results.

The site bills itself as a “Personal Internet PR” or “Google Insurance” service because its main focus is on enhancing your online identity, but it also delivers the privacy goods.

In Stein’s case, that meant discovering his most personal, and sensitive, of data within hours.

“Three hours after I gave my name and e-mail address to Michael Fertik, the CEO of, he called me back and read my Social Security number to me,” Stein writes of his experience.  “We had it a couple of hours ago,” he said. “I was just too busy to call.”

Examples like that lead others to believe the extra effort to monitor your online presence is well worth the hassle, and the cost.

Privacy advocates who fall in that camp counter Stein’s argument with the notion that, yes, your information is useless, until it is not.  And an online tracking firm, or lone identity thief, will always be there with a new tool, a new method and a new means to track it down, and pay it forward.

The new onslaught of online privacy services is not the first time venture capitalists have waded into online privacy waters.  During the height of the dot-com boom, as online tracking was just beginning to grow, start-ups promising to protect consumer privacy also emerged, only to fade away as consumers happily typed in their personal digits to reap quick rewards.

Fast forward to today when consumers are worried, politicians are angry and hundreds of online tracking companies exist solely to feed the online activities, political views, health history, shopping habits and financial information of Internet users directly to the $26 billion U.S. online-advertising industry.

As evidence of the growing counterattack, online security firm Truste recently alloted $12 million in investor funding to tighten its focus on online privacy tools for consumers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Truste currently offers not a tool but what could be considered the 21st century version of the “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval:” a “privacy seal” for websites that certifies the company’s privacy standards don’t cross their customer’s boundaries.

And, the site used by Stein for his piece in Time, has itself raised $15 million to create new consumer-based privacy initiatives. The site’s already-announced new features include a service that removes people’s names from online databases and a tool that ecrypts users’ own Facebook posts.

And for every site like that will perform virtual PR on your digital footprint to protect your privacy, there is another that, for a price, will delete it completely.

DeleteMe will, for a fee ranging from $10 to $100, delete or clean up every bit of your personal information online, from social network accounts to profiles, videos, blogs, pictures, message boards and search results.

The service, launched late last year, is run by online privacy company Abine, Inc., whose founder, Rob Shavell, told the Wall Street Journal “It’s just night and day out there,” when you compare the interest in online privacy from as recently as a few years ago to today.

Taking a stab at online privacy from another direction are startups like Memolane that create a searchable, scrollable timeline of your online life using your history from various social media accounts.

Describing itself as “your time machine for the web,” the site was meant to be a glossy memory album for social network users.  A side effect, however, is that those users can now have easy access to, and a level of control over, all the data, pics and posts they have acquired over the years on everything from Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare to YouTube, Flickr, Tripit, Picassa and their RSS feeds.

Memolane’s co-founder and CEO Eric Lagier Memolane has called the idea, “…a whole new chapter for social media.”

And perhaps a whole new front on the digital privacy divide?

Tell us what you think.  Are you concerned enough about your ‘digital footprint’ to have it digitally managed, or even erased?  What tools, services or tricks are you using to protect your online identity?

Publish date: April 5, 2011 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT