At InfoArmor, we know your digital footprint can present opportunities for identity thieves. But instructing your employees to remove every item in their digital footprints isn’t always the best answer, either. That’s because many companies use this data for a wide variety of legitimate business reasons. 

We’ll look at how companies identify a person’s data, several of the reasons why they use it, and what this means for your employees. And, most importantly, we’ll ask if those legitimate business reasons are really worth the risk.

How do businesses identify your data?

When you log into a site, the owner of that site may know who you are and associate everything you do there with your identity. But what about all those times when you’re simply browsing, yet the company seems to know about you anyway?

IP addresses are logged every time you join the internet. Since many users have static IP addresses that never change, this often forms the first building block of an online identity.

Cookies are bits of code inserted into your personal browser, letting a particular website collect information about your activity there. This is how a site seems to “remember” you when you visit again.

Other data such as your operating system and browser specifications, along with hardware such as your processor, graphics, and monitor may seem anonymous, but put together that data can form a unique profile that helps companies identify you — even without cookies.

If you fill out a form, sign up for a newsletter, or make a purchase online, you are giving that company consent to track you in their database. Read the fine print (i.e., the privacy policy and terms and conditions) before hitting that submit button to see what the company’s views on privacy and data sharing are. Because once you’ve given that consent, there may be very few restrictions regarding how much data they can collect on you.

Using your web browsing footprint

Identity thieves may go after your whole browsing history, but legitimate businesses only get three pieces of your browsing footprint to work with: the site you came from before theirs, the pages you visit within theirs, and the first site you go to after leaving theirs.

Companies may use this information mainly for marketing and strategic purposes. Seeing trends in that data can help them make their sites more effective, show them where to put advertising dollars, and help them refine their search listings and results.

Providing better customer service

Another legitimate use of your personal data may be to provide better customer service. Matching your current visit with past activities lets companies offer you dynamic content in real time. Whether that’s saving a shopping cart between sessions, opening a chatbox to follow up on a previous inquiry, or presenting products and pages tailored specifically to you, the opportunities are there to make each subsequent visit easier and smoother.

Offering secure transactions

Without a digital footprint, offering secure transactions may be impossible. That’s because companies may use portions of your digital footprint to authenticate you are who you say you are. Authentication services match the data from your transaction to what they know of your digital footprint (which is usually more than the individual company has access to) to validate your transaction. If something doesn’t match, a red flag is issued and the transaction can be denied.

The same thing may occur when you create an account, especially in the financial arena. If something doesn’t match your digital footprint, you might be instructed to make a phone call to clear things up before your new account becomes active.

Omnichannel marketing

A digital footprint may help businesses consolidate what they know about a customer across multiple channels. Instead of tracking a store customer John Smith, an online customer J.J. Smith, and a customer ordering your products from a third-party site named James J. Smith, a digital footprint may show that all three customers are actually the same entity.

Companies may then use this information not only to tailor options such as in-stock locations, fulfillment, and delivery, but also to streamline the shopping process no matter where it is… or which of the consumer’s “entities” presents itself.

Sharing and aggregating data

The drive to collect big data and share it among partners may be a given in today’s business environment. But how does that work when consumers are speaking out against data sharing and government regulations are starting to enforce privacy rights?

Data anonymization is when personally identifiable information (PII) is stripped out so that their associated data — such as demographics — can be used and even shared. This may allow the sort of aggregation that big data needs without jeopardizing the privacy of consumers. 

Should employees clean up or erase their digital footprints?

Although a digital footprint poses some risk of exploitation by cybercriminals, employees may point to the uses above as reasons for keeping it active and up-to-date. To see our more comprehensive, interactive example of a digital footprint’s many uses and risks, click here.

With this in mind, the best option for your employees may be to clean up their footprints and eliminate all the unnecessary data they can. This would include deleting unused accounts, unsubscribing from newsletters, and examining — and possibly reducing the permissions in — the privacy settings of the accounts you keep open.

At InfoArmor, we believe that your personal data is your data. Companies should be able to provide you with excellent service without tracking, collecting, or storing your data. And if they do, it should only be with your explicit consent, not the implied consent of making a purchase. At the end of the day, each bit of information you can remove from your digital footprint — and each source you can remove it from — makes you and your employees a little bit safer from identity theft.

If you have any questions about how InfoArmor can help them with that, please call us today. We’d be glad to help.